"Why can't we just switch it off?"
"Why can't we just switch it off?" asked a senior security official at a security conference Q&A a couple of years back. It was a reasonable question, but one my grandmother (c. 1892) might have asked! Perhaps more significant was the pitched battle that ensued between those whose virtual cup is always half empty, who seem to thrive on scaring the pants off us with horror stories that create fear, uncertainty and doubt, and those whose half full cup brims over with an optimistic moralistic froth. It's a pattern that has become more or less the norm at web conferences and in security blogs. There are no winners or losers in such battles because they are fought over opinions rather than facts.
Yet, one fact borne out by our experience of the web over the past two decades is just how resilient it can be. It can certainly be interrupted by DDOS attacks etc. and cable breaks, but it can't be permanently broken because of the internet's inherent re-routing capabilities which are supported by an army of techies who maintain the massive bunch of wires / fibreoptics that join computers using TCP/IP protocol.
But perhaps more important is the fact that the Web is a triumph of co-creation, peer production and mass participation. It is the collective imagination of its users which generates the will to keep it going. It is precisely because of these special physical and human qualities, why those individuals, corporations and governments who have historically tried to impose their will over it have failed in their task. This tells me that the imposition of traditional control mechanisms over the web are doomed to failure and that we need to broaden security debates from the old law and order binaries (good guys/ bad guys) to reflect the way that the internet actually works.
In the field of cybercrime, my main area of interest, for example, this new thinking tells us that the very technologies that create opportunities for cybercrimes can also be used to prevent and police them - though frameworks of accountability are required to make such actions legal. Another observation is that internet crime is by nature largely individualistic and, despite what many commentators say, resists the clutches of traditional organised crime as much as it does the state (police). Instead, we experience new forms of organised crime that is networked rather than socially embedded. Furthermore, most traditional forms of crime control fail conceptually when applied online because they frequently become interpreted as censorship and end up aggravating the general populace of honest web-users.
Until there is a broader realisation that the web is driven by a series of consensual norms that are now defining, amongst other things, citizenship, what is criminal or not, the many types of intellectual property that now exist, or even ideas about security and its solutions - norms that can come into conflict with those of 'the powerful' (Corporations, Government etc.) - then the advances that the web offers us will not progress.
The one fact that remains certain is that the internet's path will continue to be 'lit by the dark carnivorous glow of its own genius' (to paraphrase Lester Bangs from his 1970s description of Iggy Pop, who now lectures us about risk aversion in TV insurance adverts).
No, you can't switch it off, but you can perceivably switch people off, so let us strive not to do that.