A no frills look at the problems facing some of the webs fundamental technologies.
Unbeknown to most people the web is creaking at the edges and any number of fundamental technologies that the web depends upon could crumble without a moments notice. Here I’ll outline the various problems in simple terms.
Computers on the web find each other with IP addresses. IP version 4 has a finite range of around 4 billion values and it has been used since 1981. With the persistent expansion of the web we are running out of available IP addresses. IPv6 was published in 1998 but uptake has been slow and a lot of equipment around the web still simply doesn’t support it. The scope of IPv6 is effectively infinite with 3.4×1038 possible values. To make matters worse IPv6 and IPv4 are not directly compatible and intermediate equipment is needed to manage translations.
Put simply, this is like running out of telephone numbers, for the whole world, and most current telephones don’t understand new longer telephone numbers. You’re ok if you already have a phone number (or a website) but you’re kinda stuck if you’d like a new one.
We browse the web using human friendly web addresses like bbc.co.uk instead of IP addresses. DNS translates those friendly addresses to the IP addresses that computers understand. When DNS is compromised you might browse to bbc.co.uk but the DNS translation sends you to the IP address of a malicious website which might host malware or be set up to mimic the original website so that you’re tricked into handing over details. There is an extension called DNSSec but as with IPv6 the uptake is far too slow.
Put simply, you walk into a bank on the high street, the sign outside looks right and the shop inside looks right but it’s actually a fake copy of your bank and once you hand over your money you’ll never see it again.
There are some other problems such as cookies tracking your web browsing activity, so called super cookies that can’t easily be erased from your computer, net neutrality being challenged which could see the introduction of tiered or paid service levels and anonymity being eroded under a veil of social accountability.
The truth is though that the web at the time of its inception was never meant to do most of what we are using it for today. This is perhaps the biggest case of scope creep in history and there is a very real threat that the dependency so many of us have placed on the web may soon be challenged…