3Someone Impersonates the Ferryman.
Imagine the Internet is a river. In order to get to your destination (website) you need to pay (with a URL) the ferryman (a DNS server) so he can paddle you to your destination (John Mayer/Hulk Hogan slash fiction websites).
Your body is a wonderland.
Now imagine brigands (hackers) ambush the ferryman before he can get to you. They hand him his infant daughter's severed ear, wrapped in a stained white cloth. They tell him to paddle his next fare to bandit island (spyware-riddled websites) if he ever wants to see his beautiful family again.
Thankfully, the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to metaphors.
Of course, this being the futuristic year of 2010, such crude hijackings can't actually happen on any kind of large scale, right?
Back in 2007, Microsoft discovered a massive vulnerability in their DNS servers that could allow them to be hijacked by a hacker. Then, in 2008, the DNS Survey revealed that as many as one in four public DNS servers were highly vulnerable to attack. Programmers and security experts set frantically to work in order to correct the issue. They got a handle on things just in time for another gigantic goddamn problem to pop up.
It's like a game of Root Beer Tapper, but with the entire Internet at stake.
The Internet doubles in size every five years or so. This insane growth has led a massive expansion in the number of DNS servers. More traffic means more ferrymen. The thing is, the Internet's real, chief weakness is that it was built by people. Many of those people were diligent, careful workers, but most of them were just like the rest of us; lazy, irresponsible and frequently intoxicated. Millions of these new servers were set up without any security whatsoever. They allow open access to anyone with the know-how to hijack them. This is actually even scarier than it sounds.
In addition to controlling where our browser takes us when we hit "enter," the DNS servers are what direct your email. With control of the DNS server it passes through, an intruder could stop and redirect your email, or riddle it with viruses and then send it on its way.
That inspirational poem Grandma forwarded to you may have more viruses than Bret Michaels's hot tub.
This isn't theoretical. These vulnerabilities exist now, just waiting for malicious assholes to take advantage of. It could happen tomorrow, or next week, or right n-
So What Can We Do?
The safety of the Internet at large rests in the flabby hands of a brave, thankless few and they've been busy getting patches out to cover this particular flaw. But that was a Band-Aid solution and the permanent fix appears to have problems of its own.
This is the point where understanding the issue requires several years of education in exactly how DNS servers work. So we'd like to pause here to express wonder that the Internet works at all.
2The Internet is Main Street, U.S.A., and Wal-Mart Just Moved In
As many of us were reminded when GeoCities closed last year, the Internet has changed. As much as we would like to think of the Internet as forever being an untamed free-for-all where any nutjob can stake out a domain and reach a million people, the truth is we're getting more tamed by the day.
The safe word is "hotmail."
Still, it's hard to imagine a future Internet that lacks all of this mind-blowing variety (that is, millions of pages created by crazy people). After all, you can't stop people from being insane. And ultimately, information wants to be free! Right?
What we're seeing now is a variation of the strip-mall effect as seen in countless small towns in the U.S.
If you don't remember learning about the strip-mall effect in high school economics, basically big-box retailers run small Mom and Pop stores out of town by offering lower prices than the independent outlets can possibly match. Instead of the "Main Street, U.S.A." full of independent Mom and Pop niche stores, we have a ton of strip-malls filled with Wal-Mart stores and other chains.
This ultimately changed the way people shop. No one was going to walk from Laura's Bakery to Smith and Sons Light Bulbs to Barney's Pantstravaganza when they could get all of their shopping done with one trip to Wal-Mart. So not only were the old stores run out of business, but it became pointless to ever open a new one. The flow of shopper traffic had forever been diverted.
The same thing is happening on the Internet, with sites like Facebook taking up the role of big-box retailers. For instance, in order to make themselves more attractive to advertisers, Facebook put together an initiative called Facebook Connect. It allows users to sign into Hulu, Digg and more with the same ID they use to log into Facebook.
By linking their user accounts together, all of these websites have managed to create a "closed" environment, a one-stop Internet mall that provides them with an endless feedback loop of traffic. Sort of like a circle of snakes, all eating each other's poop. This works out great for the giant, well-funded websites already in on the party, but not-so-great for the "lone guy in his bedroom with a vision" sites that made the Web great in the first place.
Facebook now has 300 million users. For a lot of those people, Facebook is the Internet, and they're happy to do all of their information shopping there. A great and terrifying illustration came when this blog mentioned Facebook logins in an update. When (presumably old) people Googled "Facebook Login," the blog showed up in their results, bombarding them with thousands of people saying "IS THIS FACEBOOK WHY DOES IT LOOK DIFFERENT HELP I JUST WANT TO LOG IN."
And it's not just about traffic. All of the detailed information Facebook can provide to advertisers about your life (and they know everything at this point) means they can make advertisers an offer they can't refuse. The fear is that soon all those indie sites trying to make enough money to stay alive outside of the Facebook Mall will find the going harder than it already is.
This isn't Facebook's fault, it's not like they're using sweatshop labor or sticking a gun to competitors' heads. They're offering a comfortable path for people who find the Internet scary and confusing. If they hadn't done it, somebody else would have.
So What Can We Do?
It's the same answer as to the question we've been asking since the 80s about Wal-Mart: We will bitch about it loudly, and five minutes later enjoy the convenience the new, clean, corporate web offers us.