Friday, September 14, 2007

Internet reflects, nay amplifies social problems

The Internet is a mirror to the population that uses it, Google Inc.’s vice president and chief Internet evangelist Vinton Cerf told the BBC in August. “When you have a problem in the mirror you do not fix the mirror, you fix that which is reflected in the mirror”, Cerf said while rejecting regulation of the Internet.

To my mind, to stretch Cerf’s metaphor a little, the Internet is like a concave shaving mirror. It magnifies and throws up every blemish in society, because it offers a far greater degree of anonymity, and much greater and easier access to people.

In the old days, I had to worry about having my pocket picked by a person next to me in the subway or a bus or in the park. These days, using the Internet, a person as far away as Lagos or Moscow can dip into my pocket.

Recently I put up my laptop for sale on a popular auction site. It was my first auction, and I was delighted that someone had made me an offer within less than an hour of my posting my item ! Then the bidder got in touch with me and requested me to do him a favor and ship the laptop to his dear friend in Nigeria in time for his birthday. Incidentally, I has specified when placing the laptop for auction, that I would not arrange to ship the product.

The bidder however persisted, and even sent me an online link to his bank that showed that the funds for paying for the laptop had been kept in escrow, for disbursement as soon as I proved that the item had been shipped to his dear friend. Unfortunately, when I traced the bank web-site to its owner, I found that it wasn’t owned by a bank, but by a resident of London.

After seven days wasted, and canceling the transaction, I put up the item for auction again. Guess what ? I had a bidder again within the hour. No two guesses: the bidder wanted his girlfriend in Benin to have it in time for her birthday.

I still don’t know, and frankly don’t care who were the folks I dealt with. Were they really Nigerian scammers, as some pundits told me ? The rub is that I had been promised by the auction site that I could theoretically reach customers throughout the world. All I had succeeded in doing was attracting to myself anonymous criminal elements from around the world.

The recent hacker attack on the Bank of India site in India, and others in other countries, testify that we are at a big risk on the Internet when we least expect it. According to this report, you just had to go to the Bank of India web-site and your computer was hosed with a whole lot of compromising malware and Trojans.

Even my email is not safe. I am not talking only about folks dropping viruses and Trojans through my mailbox. Security software folks like Symantec have made a great business out of their ability to block and remove this vermin.

I am talking about the large variety of offers, some offering to cure my sexual debilitations they are privy to, others promising to keep me in a diazepam-induced Nirvana for as long as I can pay for it, and still others thoughtfully offering me a chance to share in a rich widow’s inheritance.

Apart from their being a nuisance, there is the chance that somebody may be gullible enough to be inveigled into these deals. There are a large number of reports that confirm that a lot of folks in the US have in fact got into deep trouble trying to share in someone’s loot.

The Internet gives us the most valuable and scary insights into the depths human nature can sink to, when given global access and anonymity. Does this mean that we should shut down the Internet ? No ways, I make my money of it, I download music far faster than if I had waited for the local brick-and-mortar store to stock it, I can research information on the net, I can chat up distant friends on instant messengers, people under repressive regimes can now communicate with the outside world !

The point is that we have to be very, very careful, starting with the realization that it is not a brave new world out there in cyberspace.

The Internet and its promise of Second Life is not the promise of liberation from a cruel terra firma. It is the same sad world we live in, only a lot more unsafe, because the criminals can now get you in the privacy and security of your home. Forewarned, as the old saw goes, is forearmed. Irrational exuberance could have deadly results.

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