If there's one thing that last month's media panic about the DDoS attack on Korean and US web sites has shown us, it's that the Internet really affects us all. Any two-bit hacker with an agenda and a chip on his shoulder can cause all our newspapers to talk about him for at least a week, and also slow down our access to potentially important information. It can also knock web sites offline; web sites that we need to conduct business in our daily lives. The Internet's reach is long, and it is now difficult to list all of the ways it touches our lives.
While people like to talk about the Internet as if it is some new form of magic, it is just an augmentation of something that people have been doing for millennia - communication. It is extremely augmented communication in all its forms. One to one conversations, one to many, and many to many; all of them are augmented by these tubes we use to communicate now. This communication tool has changed a lot of things.
In Nigeria, the Internet is primarily a source of income. The Nigeria 419 scam is now notorious all over the world, in which professional con men send out emails to random people around the world, asking them for help in processing millions of dollars. Inevitably, after finding a willing accomplice, they ask for small amounts of money as processing fees, which will release the millions. Unfortunately for the accomplice, their best efforts never quite release the millions. It is, however, a strong, steady source of income for Nigerian criminals, which would be impossible without the Internet.
The Internet also seems to threaten a great many governments. China is notorious for blocking and controlling the Internet within its borders, presumably because it thinks the free exchange of information is a threat to its regime. Iran is also becoming infamous for warring against the Internet, when the re-election of Ahmadinejad was put into question. Less famous instances of government-related Internet censorship also happen. Malaysia is now planning to follow in China's footsteps. Australia has installed an Internet blacklist to block undesirable sites. The country originally said that the blacklist was designed to filter out child pornography sites, but after the secret blacklist was leaked it was discovered that a great many other sites were blocked, besides child pornography sites. What kind of government thinks blocking a dentist's home page is necessary, after all
Of course, there is the threat of constant cyber attack. Although the long-term effects of such an attack are next to nothing, people have the perception that they are somehow open to new forms of attack by unknown forces from a barely-understood area. This fear and surprise is translated into newspaper and magazine articles, which all seem to be interested in describing what happens online with the most threatening-sounding rhetoric imaginable.
Scams, censorship, attack - is there anything good on the Internet Well, it does have most of the entire accumulated knowledge of the planet on it. That's a start. Wikipedia, dictionary.com, and a million million other web sites with more and less useful and true information - it is all helpful. Full books are searchable, movies, TV shows and videos are watchable, and music is listenable. All of the things that are important to us personally and as a civilization are there.
It also has a billion voices crying out in eternal argument about every topic imaginable. Despite the way it sounds, that is also actually a good thing. Argument usually results in at least a modicum of thought, which increases online knowledge for the benefit of those who come after. And, if the arguments are codified and summarized, new participants in the ongoing debate can skip to the latest issues and save time.
It has a database debunking popular and not-so-popular myths. Common stories that have been passed down from adults to children for generations die a death under close scrutiny at Snopes. Hearsay, worry, and fear are destroyed, if someone comes to the site. Clarity is just a search engine away.
Is this good, is this bad Who can say in the long run. But it has definitely affected everyone in the world irrevocably, and will continue to do so. We can't run or hide from the Internet.