Don't look at internet protocols, look in the mirror

HAYDEN WALLES
Last updated 05:00 22/07/2014
123rf.com

PROTOCOL: Many of the internet's problems are caused by stupid actions taken by humans.

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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 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 ill-considered 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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