The Hamilton Spectator
Friday, January 16, 1998
page A8

We need more than one computer net

by David Lorge Parnas,

I used computer networks long before the Internet existed. There were many small networks - each associated with specific organizations, manufacturers, and research groups. Communication from one network to another involved finding a sequence of computers, each of which was connected to two networks, that would relay signals. Each network had its own addressing conventions, but it was sometimes possible to construct an address that would send a message over a specified route to a computer on another network.

Establishing the Internet was difficult because each of the networks was implemented by software that was hard to change. Each network proprietor expected other networks to adjust, but they did not want to change their own approach. It took technical skills, political pressure, and administrative ability to establish a uniform naming scheme and protocols that allow any computer on the Internet to communicate with any other.

The Internet is revolutionizing the way that we communicate. By using the Internet, anyone with a personal computer has access to a vast collection of information and anyone can make his or her own thoughts available almost anywhere in the world. In fact, the Internet has now acquired near deity status. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility recently promulgated a document, in the style of the Ten Commandments, that began "There is only one net!". In Canada, organizations such as Electronic Frontier Canada are dedicated to "civilizing the Internet" and objects to attempts to censor or control it.

Strangely, nobody has seriously asked whether we really want to have only one universal network.

The same technology that allows us to create one network, allows us to create many.

If we insist that there be one universal network, it is difficult to impose standards beyond the minimum ones necessary to assure interconnectivity.

Consider the pornography issue. If someone suggest that we ban "kiddie porn" on our computers, others complain that any restriction violates people's freedom of speech. A staunch defender of freedom of speech, I was surprised by thus argument. I don't claim the right to express my opinions on any wall or in every paper. The issue of "freedom of speech" arises for the Internet only because there is no other comparable medium. Denying people the right to put something on the Internet is denying them the right to put it on any public computer network. If there were a separate "porn-net", the free-speech argument for unrestricted pornography would be ludicrous.

Pornography and "hate" literature are not the only issues. The usefulness of the Internet has decreased, and its cost increased, by people who send vast amounts of electronic junk mail. I can't even identify the people who send me those dumb messages. The notion of a universal net means that we cannot keep such people off it.

Information retrieval is unnecessarily time consuming because there are no standards for information presentation. It is impossible to impose accuracy and fairness standards, so I must question anything that I read on the network. Security and privacy are also problems. Internet standards and conventions are so weak that it is easy for "hackers" to gain access to any computer on the Internet. I have proposed that medical information be placed on computers and available to any doctor treating us, but I would not trust the Internet with such information.

Folklore says that we cannot impose standards on computer networks. This is nonsense. Networks are easier to control than radio, and we do impose standards on broadcasters.

If we move beyond ideas of a single universal network, competition between networks would increase service quality. Everyone could join the networks that best met their needs.

David Lorge Parnas of Ancaster is NSERC/Bell Industrial Chair in Software Engineering at McMaster University. He is also a member of The Spectator's Community Editorial Board.

Copyright © 1998 by David Lorge Parnas. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.