A Pet Peeve About the Internet

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I have said this several times before in many ways, and I will say it again: there is too much importance placed on the internet. It wouldn’t be so bad if the internet was run by the government, since that would make it more accountable. But instead, it is mostly in the hands of large private companies, who are largely unaccountable, and would not be truthful unless regulators, or the threat of regulation, forces their hand.

This was brought out in all its glory yesterday, as the Canadian telecommunications conglomerate, Rogers, experienced a denial of service nationwide, affecting all internet services. It wasn’t just that families were denied Netflix or YouTube, or that you couldn’t receive email or text messages, it was that the entire economy slowed considerably. Interac stopped working, and that meant that people couldn’t make transactions unless they had cash or credit. All major banks and credit unions use Interac, and thus experienced this problem. But in addition, customers were also not able to do e-transfers or pay bills through their bank.

Many vending machines are hooked up to the internet, and some of them were disabled if they had to connect with a Rogers service. Municipal parking, now dependent on the internet as many cities abandon parking meters, were hobbled as municipalities were not able to accept payment for parking. Toronto’s BikeShareTO service, whcih depends on the internet to distribute bikes to users, had to declare their bikes inaccessible for all stations in Toronto. Vancouver had a similar problem with its bike share program. School boards with summer online programs had to go asynchronous and move its deadlines back another day. Public libraries had a stoppage of WiFi service at many locations, as well as self-checkout machines, and book kiosks.

Many retail stores had to close altogether for the day, as was seen in Mississauga’s Square One Mall and Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall. Many condos and apartments experienced a disabling of their buzzer systems due to the outage.

That wasn’t all. 911 services also stopped working in many areas where the 911 services were managed by Rogers. Chatr Mobile and Fido, offshoot services owned by Rogers, also stopped working. Downstream internet service providers (ISPs) also experienced downtime as a consequence.

It caused the phone lines at the CRTC to go down, since they were using IP telephony provided by Rogers. Of course, this would also be true for any IP telephone, which includes all cell phones served by Rogers or its subsidiaries. These IP telephones also went down in passport offices provided by Service Canada. Rogers also manages the multi-factor authentication systems used by the Canada Revenue Agency, so anyone attempting to log in to the CRA website yesterday could not log in.

One way the internet is oversold is in how we market and use IoT (Interent of Things) devices. Imagine for example, the many forms of digital signage you see around you. A good number of them are connected to the internet, and programmed remotely. Examples are digital highway signs which warn of dangers ahead. So are a good number of household appliances, including televisions and tablets. IoT can also centrally link home security systems, allowing a monotoring service to provide surveillance at low cost as if a security guard was on site. IoT has medical applications, such as providing a way to aid medical professionals to monitor someone who has cardiovascular disease. Some of these things seem pretty essential, but others, such as IoT stoves or refrigerators which are sold to households, not so much. All these would stop working if internet providers had a service stoppage the same way Rogers had done, and these effects would have been already felt with the Rogers denial of service.

Too much is riding on the internet, and too much is riding on only a small handful of service providers. So much so, that we appear to take the internet for granted the way we take water, electricity and sewage for granted. We just assume it works and people are doing their jobs.

But the internet is very different from these other public utilities, in that there are too many variables involved in providing people with decent service. Networks can get hacked, and DDOS attacks are common enough to brandish its own acronym. Weather events happen and can cause regions to have to do without service for some time. As we have seen there are many services, and to have the same provider do them all is like putting all your eggs in the one basket.

It must also be added that the Internet wouldn’t exist without government handouts to the telcoms. It was taxpayer’s money that established the main trunk lines for the internet in the 80s and 90s in Canada and the United States. The infrastructure was practically given away to the major telcoms, and we are now seeing an example of what happens when the internet is controlled by too few companies which are largely unregulated and have little public accountability.

There is more than one major provider in Canada – Bell and Cogeco are other big players that come to mind. But we need more than just a few, so that if a DDOS attack happens, the number of people affected will be limited. Outages such as this can slow down the federal government’s attempt to provide all Canadians with universal high-speed internet by 2030.

With information from The CBC, the Toronto Star, and other websites.