The Internet turns 30 this week. At Media Sonar, we believe the Internet, like all technology, is neutral. It has no personality, no identity, no value, beyond that which we endow it. Like Schrodinger’s cat, it is neither one thing or another, or it is both until we open the box. The Internet is a reflection of our diverse society, where some will do harm and most will not. With this in mind, we are taking a look back at other neutral technologies and mediums that would not exist without the World Wide Web.
An internet bot, or web robot, is a simple software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet. Often these tasks are repetitive and simple, so bots are able to complete tasks at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone. More than half of all web traffic is made up of bots. On the one hand, we have the “good” bots. These bots keep busy crawling the web for new web pages to add to search indexes. Companies use internet bots to increase online engagement and streamline communication. Internet bots can lurk in the background of a conversation online, commenting only when certain phrases are used to help users or censor profanity. Then, we have the malicious bots. Exact same technology, but harnessed with a different intent. These are the Botnets that conduct distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), the bots that purchase concert tickets for resellers and the spambots that harvest our emails and place spam comments on websites.
Social media facilitates the creation and sharing of information, ideas and media, such as text posts, comments, photos, and videos. Users create profiles for each social media service, who then use it to develop online social networks to connect a user’s profile with other individuals or groups. Social media has had a huge impact on how we interact with each other. It is helping to shape the evolution of human society. It enables communication across a wider network than is possible using previous means. Within a few short decades, it has evolved from initial outlier to essential service for many around the world. The negative effects of social media, however, are numerous and undeniable. From cyberbullying to the manipulation of public opinion, social media has appealed to the darker aspects of our natures. The malicious use of social media continues to evolve.
The Dark Web is the World Wide Web content that exists on darknets, overlay networks that use the Internet but require specific software, configurations, or authorization to access. The Dark Web forms a small part of the Deep Web. Originally created in the mid-1990s by the United States government as a means for intelligence operatives to communicate securely, the Dark Web allows people to communicate and transact in an online environment where everyone is anonymous. In addition to being used by the intelligence community, the Dark Web is used by journalists to contact their sources, whistleblowers as well as by individuals living under authoritarian regimes where free speech, or Internet access, is outlawed or limited. For some people, this is the only way to connect to the Internet. Unfortunately, these are not the only groups who can benefit from covert communications online. By developing the Dark Web to solve problems of the day, the intelligence community inadvertently created an even bigger threat. Criminals have found ways to use it to their benefit and the Dark Web is now more like the Wild West. The Dark Web is used to sell illicit goods and communicate about criminal activity. Without visibility into what happens on the Dark Web, security professionals are essentially in the dark.
Internet classified ads act as an alternative to print classifieds which have fallen out of favor as the readership of print media decreases. They foster a greater sense of urgency than their print counterparts and boast a wider audience. Craigslist.org was one of the first online classifieds site and it has grown to become the largest provider of free classifieds worldwide. Kijiji is another provider of free classified, but they aspire to a more commercial approach than Craigslist. A number of specialized classified marketplaces online cater to niche markets, products, and services. What could go wrong? With online classifieds, again it comes down to intent. The now-shuttered Backpages classifieds site provided a way for sex workers to openly market their services. It also helped support harmful victimization and human trafficking. Another dangerous aspect is using online classifieds to bait people, drawing them to a location so they can be robbed or victimized in some way. These are exceptions to the rule, but that does not make these cases any less terrifying.
This list would not be complete without mentioning Internet memes. In a general sense, a meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. In the context of the Internet, a meme is an activity, concept, catchphrase, or piece of media that spreads, often as mimicry or for humorous purposes, from person to person via the Internet. It often takes the form of an image with text or a phrase on top. Since the first cat who uttered the words “I can haz cheezburger,” memes have literally taken on a life of their own. They are extremely effective in spreading misinformation online because of their replicative qualities, and the fact that they trade in small ideas that can resonate with the lowest common denominator. As our ability to modify and fake images continue to evolve, memes will see increased usage in shaping public opinion beyond just making people lolz.
This list could technically go on indefinitely. There is no dearth of dual nature technologies and mediums available on the Internet. The World Wide Web and the way we use it will continue to evolve, possibly for another 30 years. As it does, the way people use it to harm individuals as a society as a whole will continue to evolve as well.