In a recent issue of New Scientist magazine (no. 2706, 2nd May), there was a rather interesting feature on the internet. I found this so intriguing that I had to share it with others.

The feature addresses eight questions:

Who controls the internet?

Apparently, “the official answer is no one”. However, the article goes on to say that the actual authority for the regulation of domain names and their suffixes is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based in Marina Del Rey, California. This is all very well, but “China, Russia and Europe have all expressed concern at this situation because it means the US has leverage over the global coordination of the internet”. I agree, this is rather worrying, but the US Government has expressed no concern, and seems rather adamant that there is no reason to change this arrangement, as it is easier to leave things as they are. Michael Brooks, the author of this article, suggests that one option would be to “break the internet into chunks”, but says that any change is unlikely.

Could the net become self-aware?

This particular article has a big YES for this question, drawing comparisons “between the human brain and the internet’s complex network of nodes, as they both hold, process, recall and transmit information”. Michael Brooks says, though, that the internet is not likely to have such a high level of consciousness that it starts to wonder who it is or where it came from. Brooks also suggests that we could ‘wake up’ the internet by asking it to monitor its own “knowledge gaps”, and requiring that they be fixed. However, Francis Heylighen, who studies consciousness and atrificial intelligence at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), explains that we would probably find the whole issue rather disappointing. He says, “We probably would not notice a whole lot of difference, initially”. Heylighen also suggests that if as much effort goes into developing the internet’s consciousness as we’ve seen go into social networking sites, it could be ‘woken up’ within 10 years.

How big is the net?

This part was particularly interesting, as it came with a world map, and the totals of internet users in the major internet-using countries, compared to 2002, 2004 and 2006. China, unsurprisingly, has 220,000,000 users, but this is only due to the country’s vast population. Next largest is the US, at 220,00,000 users. Japan came in third with 94,000,000. Brazil has 67,500,000. India, 60,000,000. Germany, 52,500,000. Then there came the UK, sixth, with 43,200,000.  I also found it interesting that 210 billion emails were sent each day in 2008, 78% of which were spam!

Is there only one internet?

In this article, Ben Crystall tells us that for now, there is one internet, but in the future it looks as though Russia and China will make their own, divided internet. There have been changes to do with language and the alphabet, as Chinese and Russian internet users, and the governments, demanded foreign characters. However, Crystall points out that if, say in the UK, we wanted to access these Chinese and Russian pages on their ‘internet’, we would only be able to if our computers had the particular software to be able to type and/or view these characters. Therefore, if this does happen, we will be led “down a road towards a divided internet: one part controlled by the US, one by China, and another by Russia”.

Is the net caught in the credit crunch?

I found this article interesting because it addresses something that each of us can experience in everyday life. The example they used of websites etc experiencing the credit crunch was Second Life. I, myself, have never played this, but I know the basic principles. Second Life, I am told in this article by Duncan Graham-Rowe, is creating more virtual land and cutting the cost of developing it. Additionally, the author says that more people are turning to the internet to escape the recession, saving money by staying in their homes, or playing for more hours in online worlds. I am also told, that “there is a chance that the rise in traffic will outpace the expansion of infrastructure, making internet outages increasingly likely”.

Where are the net’s dark corners?

This part was about hackers, and the ways they infiltrate the internet. Ben Crystall suggests that there are ‘black holes’ into which emails mysteriouly disappear, or websites are inaccessible. We are also warned, in this article, that Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels are not entirely safe. Some are run as “open markets for stolen goods”, or ways of acquiring credit card numbers and bank account details, using malicious software bots, or botnets.

Is the net hurting the environment?

Some of the figures from this article by Duncan Graham-Rowe were alarming – the energy used by computers and peripherals linked to the internet could be responsible for up to 2% of all CO2 emissions, about the same as the aviation industry. Graham-Rowe says that IBM claim to be in the process of developing carbon-neutral data centres, where water cooling is used to channel the heat given off by chips to provide heat for nearby homes and offices.

Could we shut the net down?

Milton Mueller of the international Internet Governance Project, says that “he finds it hard to think of a reason why we might want to shut down the internet. Even the biggest cyber-attacks cause much less economic damage than closing the internet”.

So yes, I found this all very interesting. Does anyone else have any views on these issues?