We have seen the future of the Internet, and it isn't very pretty.
When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange announced the release of sensitive U.S. government documents, he also sparked a vigilante war reminiscent of the Wild West. Just before the release, the WikiLeaks site was shut down briefly by denial-of-service attacks. In return, "hacktivist" groups attacked U.S. government sites, as well as those of Amazon, PayPal and MasterCard that had distanced themselves from WikiLeaks.
Whatever one thinks of Mr. Assange's actions, the seemingly blithe acceptance of hacktivism may be the most troubling sign. Private groups that seized copies of U.S. newspapers carrying the Pentagon Papers would have been reviled, but the WikiLeaks cyberattack groups seem to elicit only indifference.
In a separate development, there's a new cyber superworm called Stuxnet. Speculation is that some nation or nations launched Stuxnet to disrupt Iran's nuclear program, and that Stuxnet did so by damaging nuclear centrifuges. Stuxnet marks a new era of cyberwar: For years, experts have warned that any nation's critical infrastructure and industrial processes are vulnerable to cyberattack. Now we have a visible demonstration.
Here's what ties WikiLeaks and Stuxnet together: Just as the vigilantes attacking WikiLeaks-related websites have not been identified, neither have the Stuxnet perpetrators. Both show that events on the Internet can have serious consequences, yet are largely outside the framework of accountability.
This doesn't bode well for the cybercity we call the Internet. And the Internet really is a city, with an immense tangle of highways, interchanges and addresses. Whatever your Internet abode, you pay rents and fees. But the Internet is not a truly modern city. It's more like the early Industrial Age London that Charles Dickens described - a place of rapid growth but filled with garbage, criminals and ineffective governance. London was perilously chaotic then because the city had grown far beyond the ability to manage such a sprawl. So it is with our cybercity.
With vital government and economic activities relying on the Internet, users need better security and choices about privacy. The Internet won't collapse if serious reforms don't occur. But its future may come to look like Detroit, where growth has atrophied, or like Lagos, where runaway growth has made conditions nearly unlivable for many.
Reforms need not mean heavy-handed government regulation or the end of free speech. The way Canada dealt with the Y2K challenge of 2000 provides a partial model. The federal government didn't spell out what companies had to do about possible Y2K bugs. Instead, it made clear that such problems wouldn't be an excuse for violating laws. It was the sense of public responsibility that encouraged companies to act.
Today, there's an opportunity for Canada to lead the world in developing a common framework for accountability. We have a start in the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, a document signed but not yet ratified by Canada and many other nations. The convention should be updated, and Canada could then set an example through speedy ratification. Canada and its allies also need a coherent doctrine for collective security in cyberspace; NATO provides a possible framework for Canadian leadership.
But institutional reforms are only part of the solution. The Internet's technical foundations need to be rebuilt, as they were never designed to support security for the massive welter of public and private uses that constitute today's traffic. A new parallel network should be brought into service.
Numerous R&D projects in Canada are already developing "future Internet" technologies. What's needed is a concerted effort to move the work from the realm of "this is what's possible" to "Let's do it." With its high-tech universities, Canada could lead a community of nations in launching a small demonstration of a new security/privacy network. Then, following a path similar to that which launched the Internet in the U.S., the network could gradually open to users of different kinds.
The WikiLeaks battle and Stuxnet are only the most visible harbingers of a new age in which beyond-the-pale acts in cyberspace could threaten our societies. Like the people of Victorian London, we have to face up to reforming both the institutional and technical architectures of the Internet. Not to do so invites a kind of chaos that even people in the 1800s found unacceptable.
Jeffrey Hunker is the author of Creeping Failure: How We Broke the Internet and What We Can Do to Fix It , and was the senior director for critical infrastructure at the White House National Security Council under Bill Clinton.