The NSF effort to make the medium smarter also runs up against the libertarian culture of the Internet, says Harvard’s Zittrain. “The NSF program is a worthy one in the first instance because it begins with the premise that the current Net has outgrown some of its initial foundations and associated tenets,” Zittrain says. “But there is a risk, too, that any attempt to rewrite the Net’s technical constitution will be so much more fraught, so much more self-conscious of the nontechnical matters at stake, that the cure could be worse than the problem.”
Still, Zittrain sees hazards ahead if some sensible action isn’t taken. He posits that the Internet’s security problems, and the theft of intellectual property, could produce a counterreaction that would amount to a clampdown on the medium – everything from the tightening of software makers’ control over their operating systems to security lockdowns by businesses. And of course, if a “digital Pearl Harbor” does occur, the federal government is liable to respond reflexively with heavy-handed reforms and controls. If such tightenings happen, Zittrain believes we’re bound to get an Internet that is, in his words, “more secure – and less interesting.”
But what all sides agree on is that the Internet’s perennial problems are getting worse, at the same time that society’s dependence on it is deepening. Just a few years ago, the work of researchers like Peterson didn’t garner wide interest outside the networking community. But these days, Clark and Peterson are giving briefings to Washington policymakers. “There is recognition that some of these problems are potentially quite serious. You could argue that they have always been there,” Peterson says. “But there is a wider recognition in the highest level of the government that this is true. We are getting to the point where we are briefing people in the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. I specifically did, and other people are doing that as well. As far as I know, that’s pretty new.”
Outside the door to Clark’s office at MIT, a nametag placed by a prankster colleague announces it to be the office of Albus Dumbledore – the wise headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a central figure in the Harry Potter books. But while Clark in earlier years may have wrought some magic, helping transform the original Internet protocols into a robust communications technology that changed the world, he no longer has much control over what happens next.
But “because we don’t have power, there is a greater chance that we will be left alone to try,” he says. And so Clark, like Dumbledore, clucks over new generations of technical wizards. “My goal in calling for a fresh design is to free our minds from the current constraints, so we can envision a different future,” he says. “The reason I stress this is that the Internet is so big, and so successful, that it seems like a fool’s errand to send someone off to invent a different one.” Whether the end result is a whole new architecture – or just an effective set of changes to the existing one – may not matter in the end. Given how entrenched the Internet is, the effort will have succeeded, he says, if it at least gets the research community working toward common goals, and helps “impose creep in the right direction.”
Foundations for a New Infrastructure
The NSF’s emerging effort to forge a clean-slate Internet architecture will draw on a wide body of existing research. Below is a sampling of major efforts aimed at improving everything from security to wireless communications.
Focus:Creating an Internet “overlay network” of hardware and software–currently 630 machines in 25 countries–that performs functions ranging from searching for worms to optimizing traffic.
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT
Focus:A software and hardware test bed that provides researchers a simple, practical way to emulate the Internet for a wide variety of research goals.
DETER/University of Southern
California Information Sciences Institute
Marina del Rey, CA
Focus:A research test bed where researchers can safely launch simulated cyber-attacks, analyze them, and develop defensive strategies, especially for critical infrastructure.
WINLAB (Wireless Information Network Laboratory)
New Brunswick, NJ
Focus:Develops wireless networking architectures and protocols, aimed at deploying the mobile Internet. Performs research on everything from high-speed modems to spectrum management.