Is the internet heading for a midlife crisis as it hits its 40th birthday?

Today officially marks the 40th anniversary of the internet.

Depending on which source you believe or read, and I have read several that give dates across this year, according to Wikipedia, October 29th is the date when the two nodes that would become the ARPANET were interconnected between UCLA's School of Engineering and Applied Science and SRI International in Menlo Park, California.

This initial connection and the gradual advances throughout the 1970s and 1980s led to the opening of the network to commercial interests in 1988, with a move towards consumer use in the early to mid 1990s.

It is hard to think of an alternative to the internet and how we communicate these days. It is the first resource for information research and over the past few years, has become the most common factor for communication via social networking sites.

In agreement was Sam Pickles, lead enterprise field systems engineer at F5 Networks, who commented: “The web's changed the way of life over the past four decades for over 1.6 billion people in the world, whether it is the ability to communicate over email or living through an Avatar on Second Life.

“As we celebrate 40 years since the first host-to-host message was sent between two computers, the eye-opener for most people will be the fact that the internet has been around for longer than the last 20 years.

“Even what we know today as email has conceptual roots in the early 70s. The sea-change over the years has been the introduction of more and more ‘openness' to what started off as technology to connect educational and governmental bodies, and this is also what might cause the internet a midlife crisis as it enters its fifth decade.”

If this is the start of the internet's midlife crisis, as Pickles hints at, could it be down to the fact that it is attacked on an hourly basis, millions of times a day, while its more malicious users use it for criminal and malicious gain?

Pickles said: “We've been warned in the past that the internet is in danger of melting down, and while I don't think that's going to happen on a grand scale, reliance on what is in some cases pretty ancient infrastructure with single-points-of-failure will almost certainly mean frequent inabilities to access photos, data, email and so on that are increasingly stored on a server somewhere in the world rather than on our home PC.”

A story run on SC Magazine's website back in February of this year featured an opinion from the New York Times senior writer John Markoff, who claimed that internet security and privacy ‘have become so maddeningly elusive' that the only way to fix the problem is to start over with a new model.

Similarly, in August of this year, Brian Hay, detective superintendent for fraud and corporate crime at the Queensland Police, told an Australian TV programme that he expected to see a debate on the benefit of the internet, and whether it should be switched off.

Now for someone who spends the whole day online, be it surfing the blogs, reading the comments on this website or having a quick game on Mousebreaker, a world without the internet is inconceivable and one that I would not be able to work within.

What about the software vendors? It was once said to me that it is the criminals who drive their work, so with no internet to pollute, surely there would be no need for anti-virus, firewalls, anti-spam etc.

However a world without the internet may not be a distant fable for some users if Lord Mandelson gets his way. In a speech at the C&binet forum, Mandelson said that he was ‘shocked to learn that only one of every 20 tracks downloaded in the UK is downloaded legally'.

His plan is to put ‘before Parliament a proportionate measure that will give people ample awareness and opportunity to stop breaking the rules'.

Mandelson said: “It will be clear to them that they have been detected, that they are breaking the law and that they risk prosecution. If necessary we have also made it clear that we will go further and make technical measures available, including account suspension. In this case, there will be a proper route of appeal. But it must become clear that the days of consequence-free widespread online infringement are over.”

He went on to acknowledge the ‘contentious debate' about this, but said: “Let me be clear on this point: technical measures will be a last resort and I have no expectation of mass suspensions resulting.

“If we reach the point of suspension for an individual, they will be informed in advance – having previously received two notifications – and will have the opportunity to appeal. But the threat for persistent individuals is, and has to be, real, or no effective deterrent to breaking the law will be in place.”

If there is a reality ahead for some that their choice on how they use the internet is going to be challenged, then it may be that the 40 years of development from Menlo Park come to a sudden end with the flick of a switch and pull of a plug.

As this country has pushed the development of high-speed broadband and wireless access, to bring it all to an end would be a huge shame as development has seen the internet take over our lives to such a large extent.

Looking forward to the next 40 years, it is hard to know what we will be doing in ten years, let alone what boundaries the next generation will push and break. I just hope everyone is online to experience it.

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