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Should we need a licence to surf the internet?

Column The internet should be free to all, but some people...
Fri Apr 19 2013, 14:02

I FOLLOW a Twitter account called @NeedADebitCard. It's a relatively small account, it follows no one and has only 12,000 followers. It performs a simple task. Every time someone posts an image of their debit or credit card on Twitter, it retweets it.

It is fascinating, really. You might think that we live in a world where people are so aware of their personal privacy that they shred their bus tickets. We don't. Instead we live in a world where some people are so face-slappingly stupid that they upload photographs of their debit cards to the internet.

Surely you don't have to be a genius to know that this is a very bad idea. You wouldn't, for example, create an image of your debit card on a poster and put it up at bus stops, would you? Or allow it to be featured in a popular magazine or newspaper?

No. Then why the heck do some people post their debit or credit cards on a website with over 200 million users? It's like the internet is some kind of crazy dive bar, where once we get in we lose all inhibitions and start doing some really stupid things.

We are all guilty, however. We've committed to giving away steady streams of information and control of that information to powers greater than ourselves.

Who has surrendered their entire life's photographic work to Facebook or Flickr? Who has entrusted important legal documents to Megaupload? Whose entire communications and documents history rests solely on Google Drive, on a Google server thousands of miles away from where they live?

The truth is, it's all of us. We've all banana-skin slipped into an internet where what we want is the very last thing on anyone else's agenda. The internet isn't for us, it's about us. It is built around our wants and wishes and desires and our likes, and served to us in a walled garden that extracts information streams about our lives and habits as the price of admission.

Is it too late to save us? Well of course it is now. But if it wasn't I would suggest the totally unworkable idea that we should have to apply for a licence to use the internet. It would be sort of like a driving licence, except that instead of streets and motorways it would apply to the information superhighway.

To pass a driving test you must be able to prove that you can drive a car without crashing it into a petrol station, through a glass factory or into a nature reserve. You are expected to know how to maintain control and answer some practical questions about driving in situations.

The driving test and licensing procedure probably saves thousands of properties from meeting crushing ends at the noses of cars, and a lot of drivers from paying expensive insurance bills.

There is no such quality control for the internet. At present, you only have to have access to a computer and a mouse to get online, and once you are there you are free to do whatever you want.

And people do. People click on links, unknowingly let their computers join botnets, allow applications to do whatever the heck they want with their personal data and their friends' data, they believe the promises of untrusted websites, the emailed entreaties of far away princes that promise riches just out of reach, and they let themselves be spiked on the end of spear phishing attacks on a daily basis.

There is a whole industry devoted to stopping people from doing this sort of thing and yet it still goes on, because people fall for the same tricks time and time again. I find it genuinely upsetting to think that there are people out there who are so ripe for the conning that they fall for the most obvious scams, and yet there seems to be no obvious cure, or at least no found cure, for what ails them. And that is themselves.

Let's not forget that we are moving towards an internet of things. This means that everything that surrounds us will have some connected technological being on the internet.

If things like toasters turn malevolent, and start instructing people to stick metal forks in them, can we be sure that people will not comply? I won't dare to venture a guess either way.

What I would like to say is this, be safe out there. The internet is a dark, mean and nasty place that harbours some very bad characters, and you really don't want to run into any of them. µ


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