We’ve all had this happen. You’re searching the Internet for an important fact or news, when you inadvertently wander and look at, say, a pair of designer shoes. Then, for the next several days, every time you go online some digital device tries to sell you those shoes. It repeats its pitch—images and all—until those shoes are the last footwear on earth you would ever buy. Then it repeats it again. Wherever you browse, you leave a set of telltale footprints deep enough for anyone with the interest to follow.
Being pestered by shoe “sales bots” is nothing compared to the breaches of privacy or assaults on security we hear so much about. Those lapses have real consequences.
Early Internet developers and enthusiasts were fond of referring to the Web as a “virtual town hall,” “electronic commons” or “information superhighway.” But the Web—like everything human—is much more complicated. It is a marketplace, a communications platform, an entertainment destination, a place to get educated and informed. It is a vast library of knowledge and a hub where people can connect in a social way, and where they can connect in an antisocial way. It’s high technology mixed with mayhem.
By adding those capabilities to our desktops, our homes, our tablets and phones, we have created a long list of potential conflicts and temptations. Some of those temptations are individual, others are commercial, and some are governmental. Some of those conflicts involve individual rights, especially the right to remain anonymous.
So far, it’s pretty clear many individuals, organizations and governmental bodies have failed miserably at keeping these temptations and conflicts in check. While the Web is filled with volumes of high-minded discourse, philosophy and even religion, not to mention social criticism and insight, it is also rife with elements of humanity’s darker nature. There is no zone of human behavior that has not migrated into cyberspace.
Silk Road was allegedly a site where visitors could buy credit card numbers, weapons and drugs and even hire hit men, mercenaries and enforcers. Fortunately, Silk Road was shut down. Unfortunately, it has been reported that other sites just like it, but better hidden, have sprung up. The same is true with regard to sites that recruit terrorists and share weapons-making techniques. There is a whole other side to the Web, called the “deep Web,” that you can only find by downloading special software, such as Tor, an anonymous browser you can get for no charge.
In some ways, the Web resembles one of those exotic, crime-ridden “casbahs” in old Hollywood movies. For most of us, the extent of the Web’s naughtiness is pretty tame. But for others the Internet is like Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, where the “usual suspects” sell forged “letters of transit,” launder money, gamble, snitch on their “friends,” compulsively eavesdrop, make off with the occasional diamond ring and are once in a while moved by the spirit of self-sacrifice and heroism.
The truth is, the Web is simply an electronic extension of us, complex as we are, with our hopes, fears, follies, diversions and darker excursions. Given that it is a reflection of our nature—something we’re not about to change anytime soon—can we at least do away with all those constantly repeating ads that try to sell us whatever we looked at last? They’re far too annoying.