No Borders

I made a mistake this week, or rather a misjudgement. I wrote about a new threat called Goolag, in which a malicious person could use Google to find servers on the Internet that are vulnerable to attack. The servers are infected with malicious code that causes anyone who visits them to be exposed to compromise. This is how many an innocent person’s computer becomes a spam-bot, remotely controlled by hackers and used to send spam, and sometimes to infect its neighbours as well.

I wrote, “Making simple mistakes is the easiest way to expose yourself to attack…. You won’t be targeted so much as stumbled across.”

Within two days of writing about the issue, an online security blog reported a wave of attacks affecting approximately 200,000 web servers. The single most important part of comedy, as they say, is timing.

This latest wave of attacks is important to us for a couple of reasons: It demonstrates that the democratising effect of information on the Web respects no single set of ethics or morality. The very same information-sharing tools that have so empowered people everywhere are being used by vandals and criminals for their own selfish ends as well.

It also means that there are no safe havens online.

Vanuatu is famous for its relaxed atmosphere and the almost overwhelming insouciance of its population. The attitude infects everyone who lives here. It’s sometimes a shock to newly-arrived expats to see just how slowly things can move relative to the place they came from. But inevitably they find themselves settling into the same pace, allowing events that would have made them livid elsewhere pass with a shrug and a sigh.

But the Internet has no borders. Electrons travelling through the networks of the world don’t travel on the right side of the cable in Vanuatu and on the left in Fiji. They don’t slow down in school areas, they don’t stop at Customs for inspection, and the only laws they obey are the laws of physics. They don’t know and, frankly, they don’t care about our laws, attitudes, culture and kastom.

It’s up to us to do that. Grasping the technical, ethical and even moral aspects of the Internet is a very difficult task, mostly because there are no short cuts to understanding, and the ultimate effects of this new technology are very hard to see. It’s true that Vanuatu is years behind the curve in terms of using communications technology, but it’s hard to know where to look for lessons.

The developed world’s communications networks are layered over a century’s worth of infrastructure development. Indeed, the Internet was designed explicitly in order to ensure that communications could continue even in catastrophic circumstances.

Contrast that with the impact of everyday influences such as rain, heat, dust, humidity and insects on communications technology in Vanuatu. It’s fashionable to roll one’s eyes whenever minor things cause major disruptions, but we need to recognise that they do happen, and they’ll continue to happen.

When we compare ourselves to the rest of the developing world, we see more similarities. We can see as well that we’re not so far behind. In fact our small size makes it easier in some ways for us to embark on a programme of lifting ourselves up by our proverbial boot straps. There are technical challenges that we share with many other nations, but choosing which lessons we need to learn from can be a difficult task.

In the mean time, the same threats that assail servers in the US, India and China are also assaulting ours. And the same infections they spread are also infecting our machines.

Viruses and other malicious software are an immediate and pressing problem, because they keep us from spending time and resources on improving and optimising our particular corner of the Internet. They affect us disproportionately because repair, maintenance and service provision is thin on the ground in Vanuatu.

But the problem extends much further than that. We face a lack of depth and breadth of understanding of technical issues that is systemic, nearly universal.

I’ve argued before that our planning in the communications sector should focus on human resource development above all other things. But this should not be construed to mean that we need a lot more computer science graduates. We do need people with more technical background, certainly. But the nitty-gritty technical part often takes care of itself, and technologies change so fast that on the job training is sometimes the only available option.

Back in 1994 or so, the world was just starting to wake up to the World Wide Web. There were no web designers at that time. Nor were there a significant number of people with a background in networks. But there were a lot of people with time on their hands and a love of learning.

In many ways, the Web invented itself. The development of the vast and richly detailed landscape of information, diversions, distractions and threats happened through a cyclical process: The web was easy to access and useful, so people used it, and in the process of doing so, made it easier to access and more useful.

We can expect similar things to happen here in Vanuatu. Some have fretted that low levels of literacy will adversely affect the uptake of written communications like SMS, email and online chat. But the trend in other developing countries is that functional literacy rises even in the absence any formal inputs from government or NGOs. People will always find a way to talk.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t formalise and promote basic literacy and language education nationwide. On the contrary, these efforts are more timely now than ever, but they’ll be most effective if their format facilitates peer education, so that people can share the learning materials freely among themselves.

Likewise, people can be trusted to learn whichever software and interfaces most readily allow them talk. Our standards, therefore, will likely be dictated as much by happenstance as by technical appropriateness: The interface that Person A is most familiar with will almost certainly be what she teaches to Person B. At a certain point, whatever we geeks suggest becomes almost irrelevant.

So how are we to go about improving human resources if the Internet is going to do it all for us, and more to the point, why bother? Isn’t it all going to happen on its own?

A so-called technocratic class will almost certainly arise in Vanuatu, just as it has in every other country. Eventually. But we need it to bloom. We need people who can reconcile the competing and sometimes contradictory themes of learning, culture and safety on the Internet and in traditional Vanuatu life. If we don’t, we may find that we’ve bought technological sophistication at the expense of social and cultural stability.

It won’t be enough for our new generation of geeks to be the best in Vanuatu; they’ll be operating in a world without borders or backwaters. They will have to be as good as the rest of the world, because they’ll be responsible for making Vanuatu’s communications environment as fruitful as possible for everyone here.

The process is cyclical, and when it works it’s self-sustaining. But it needs to start somehow. The way to do that is to create opportunities to learn, to work and especially to play with the Internet. That means creating the positions and resources necessary to foster growth and exploration. It means creating the means for people to learn in-depth, practical skills through experimentation, development and implementation. But mostly it means commitment.