This time around, the culprit is a bit of malware known as the “Internet doomsday virus”, which threatens to take down as many as four million computers worldwide on July 9. While the problem seems to be under control (the FBI has our back on this one) — the next time around, the real “doomsday virus” could be activated by national cyber-warriors trying to take down the Internet for geopolitical reasons or even just a bunch of hackers doing it “for the Lulz.” It’s clear that the Internet Doomsday scenario is not going away anytime soon.
And that’s what makes this summer’s doomsday virus so unnerving — hackers are preying on perhaps our greatest weakness: our own nonchalance about the future of the Internet.
Sure, we may download a bit of anti-virus software now and then, or tick off a few privacy control boxes here and there, but how many of us are really concerned about the safety and security of the Internet? As individual consumers, we do not carry any collective responsibility for the Internet as a whole. We always assume that there’s someone else protecting the Internet — if not our Internet providers or wireless carriers, surely it’s the government.
This problem in its various permutations is known in economic and scientific circles as "The Tragedy of the Commons." As described in an influential 1968 article by ecologist Garrett Hardin, the phrase refers to any situation where multiple rational actors who operate in their own self-interest will deplete a shared common resource even when it is not in their own best interest. The classic example of this “over-exploitation” scenario is the case of cows grazing on a village commons: a bunch of profit-maximizing farmers acting individually will tend to let their cows over-graze, while assuming that all of the other farmers will somehow care for the preservation of the commons. Of course, nobody does, so the commons is soon over-exploited and nobody is able to feed their cows.
We are so used to thinking of the Internet as an unlimited resource, that it is almost impossible to think otherwise. But think about the debate over charging customers for their data usage or the competition for additional bandwidth by the carriers to handle all the data we’re sending over the networks — it’s easy to see that the Internet is not unlimited, and that each of us is like the farmer letting their cow over-graze the commons. As Nobel laureate Daniel McFadden pointed out in Forbes at the beginning of the last Web boom in Sept. 2001, it is exactly this thinking about the Internet as a form of digital commons that will frame all future debates about the pricing and availability of data, information and content on the Internet: “Management of the digital commons is perhaps the most critical issue of market design that our society faces.”
Hopefully, the July 9 deadline will pass without the Internet doomsday virus taking down too many computers, much as the legendary Millennium Bug passed without taking down too many computers during Y2K. Even so, it’s clear that similar types of viruses will continue to proliferate, if for no other reason that there are simply so many ways to “take down” the Internet. While the Internet Doomsday Virus seems to infect primarily desktop and laptop computers, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where viruses infect mobile phones through SMS spam messages or massive files streaming to our tablet devices also include the seeds for future malware attacks. We each have a responsibility for the Internet, and only by thinking of the Internet as a limited resource can we prevent the next malware or cyber virus attacking this resource.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web’s first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called “Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful.”
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