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a ‘journalist,’ so you can’t tell what’s true,” Perlman says. “You can create as many false identities as you want. Machine-learning algorithms try to keep you engaged as long as possible, so they radicalize you more and more, by tuning with tunnel vision on what they think you want. Bad actors are purposely trying to foment hatred. The polarization of society is getting worse and worse.”
It’s hard to blame any of this on the internet itself, which was designed merely to carry information, not to generate it or censor it. But that doesn’t make the problems any less terrifying.
Perlman relates a personal story that captures one of the new hazards of internet life. “I was searching for how to renew my driver’s license, and I was in a hurry, and I was tired. I typed into Google, ‘Renew Washington state driver’s license.’ And I clicked on the top result, which was a very well-organized website with a URL that looked perfectly reasonable, something like washington.licensing.org. I clicked on ‘Renew license,’ and I put in my address, my name, my credit card number.”
That’s when the special offers and unauthorized charges started popping up. When Perlman looked more carefully, she realized the site only sold information about how to get a license—it wasn’t actually affiliated with the state’s licensing department.
After several days and many calls to her bank’s anti-fraud department, Perlman undid the damage. “I’m actually reasonably sophisticated about security and networking, and I was tricked into giving my credit card to a criminal,” she sums up. “The thing is that people don’t search based on URLs. They search based on Google results. And bad guys get to be first in the search order because they pay Google.”
Network architects can’t invent their way around pitfalls like that; they have to be addressed at the level of design, business models, regulation, or policy—or some combination of those approaches. But public trust in the big internet companies, and in the agencies meant to oversee them, has been battered by years of scandal. “There are all sorts of really difficult problems that may or may not be solvable,” she says.
To Perlman, the glass-half-full way of seeing the situation is that there are still plenty of challenges for coming generations of programmers to tackle. “When I was young, I was nervous that everything would have been solved by the time I was grown,” she says. “But it’s great that there are still interesting problems to solve.”
Does that make her a “hopeful pessimist,” I wondered? “Maybe,” she says. “Or at least I pretend to be when I’m talking to young people.”
What seems inevitable is that the internet of 2069 will be even more pervasive and more deeply embedded in citizens’ lives than the internet of today. The stakes will be higher, even if the technology itself is less visible. The people of that day might not speak of finding things or sharing things “on the internet,” any more than we currently speak of “driving on the highway network” or “making a call on the telephone network.” But the internet, or its potentially various descendants, will be the fabric for almost all communication, collaboration, and commerce.