Don’t look at the in­ter­net pro­to­cols, look in the mir­rror

A sim­ple rule can help strengthen the in­ter­net’s weak­est link, writes Hay­den Walles.

The Press - The Box - - THE BOX -

Like it or not, we’re all part of the in­ter­net. I’m not re­fer­ring to the cor­ti­cal im­plants that cer­tain con­spir­acy the­o­rists think are in­stalled in our heads. Nor do I mean that the in­ter­net has sucked out our hu­man­ity and left us mere me­chan­i­cal com­po­nents of some gi­ant hive mind (maybe that’ll be the killer app in iOS 10).

It’s just that by think­ing of our­selves as part of the in­ter­net, rather than just users of it, we can learn a thing or two from the mind­less ma­chines that make up the rest.

You prob­a­bly think of the in­ter­net be­gin­ning at your key­board or touch screen and fan­ning out into a neb­u­lous cloud. But why should the in­ter­net stop at your fin­ger­tips? With­out us the in­ter­net would be silent. It doesn’t just link our com­put­ers to­gether – it links us to­gether, and we are all part of it.

That doesn’t mean we give up our au­ton­omy – quite the op­po­site.

Many of the in­ter­net’s prob­lems are caused by stupid ac­tions taken by hu­mans.

De­spite all the fine tun­ing on the servers and routers deep in­side the net­work, the ir­ra­tional hu­mans at the fringes of­ten muck ev­ery­thing up.

We click on a link we shouldn’t do and be­fore you know it half a bil­lion com­put­ers are in­fected with some hideous mal­ware or – al­most as bad – their users are in­fected with the lat­est vi­ral video.

Could we im­prove things, per­haps, if we looked for guid­ance

Many of the in­ter­net’s prob­lems are caused by stupid ac­tions taken by hu­mans. De­spite all the fine tun­ing on the servers and routers deep in­side the net­work, the ir­ra­tional hu­mans at the fringes of­ten muck ev­ery­thing up.

to the ar­chi­tec­tural prin­ci­ples that shape the in­ter­net? Af­ter all, if we’re part of the in­ter­net, we should try to play by rules.

Some of those rules are highly tech­ni­cal and don’t ap­ply to hu­mans.

But one that does goes by the name of the Ro­bust­ness Prin­ci­ple or Pos­tel’s Prin­ci­ple af­ter Jon Pos­tel who used it when he was help­ing to cre­ate the in­ter­net’s in­fra­struc­ture.

The Ro­bust­ness Prin­ci­ple ex­horts pro­gram­mers cre­at­ing soft­ware for the in­ter­net to be con­ser­va­tive in what they pro­duce, and lib­eral in what they ac­cept.

For pro­gram­mers that means not as­sum­ing other com­put­ers have ad­vanced fea­tures un­til they tell you other­wise, and han­dling ev­ery­thing that comes your way even if it’s wrong.

Soft­ware doesn’t have to wel­come ev­ery mal­formed re­quest with open arms – in­deed bad re­quests should gen­er­ally be noted and dis­carded – it just shouldn’t crash in the face of the un­ex­pected.

The prin­ci­ple is in­tended to help the in­ter­net as a whole be ro­bust and that’s why it’s a use­ful prin­ci­ple even for us hu­mans.

It pro­vides guid­ance in a wide range of on­line sit­u­a­tions, from the tech­ni­cal – think twice be­fore you send some­one a file in an un­usual for­mat or click on that mys­te­ri­ous link – to the so­cial – re­sist chan­nelling your per­sonal views into a stream of bile you’ll later re­gret and don’t let the ill­con­sid­ered ac­tions of oth­ers get to you.

The in­ter­net isn’t per­fect and never will be. The Ro­bust­ness Prin­ci­ple ac­knowl­edges this sad fact, but helps keep things work­ing in spite of it. It works well for the bits of in­ter­net made of sil­i­con. If we car­bon-based units stuck to the Ro­bust­ness Prin­ci­ple, too, maybe the in­ter­net would have fewer mal­ware pan­demics and Twit­ter storms.

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