Is your message getting through? Maybe not

eLABorations: Internet's falling content quality is an inevitable triumph of noise over signal

In the real world of the physical signals that actually carry our data, usable bandwidth depends on the ratio of signal to noise. When noise is nonexistent, the smallest variation in the signal can carry useful information: If I can reliably measure signal strength to the nearest thousandth of a volt, a single pulse in the range from zero to one volt can convey almost 10 bits of data.

If theres noise on the channel, though, I might do well to tell if the signal is merely there or not there: thats only one bit per signal transition, and Ill just have to live with that reduced return on my effort. Which brings me to the downward trend in the state of Internet content.

In the virtual world of Net content, signals arrive exactly as they were sent, without interference or distortion; even so, people can still inject noise into content channels as a way of denying bandwidth to an adversary, or of arrogating more bandwidth for themselves. Market forces, rather than technology alone, will eventually determine what gets through: one way or another, well pay more to get more, or perhaps I should say to get less—because reducing the amount of noise that we have to filter is going to occupy a growing share of network management resources.

The last line of defense, regrettably, will always be the finite and priceless resource of our personal attention.

I remember a foreboding that wed soon see widespread wars of deliberate disinformation when I read about the tactics being used by some lesser-known musicians to gain exposure for their work on the MP3 exchanges. "The Evolution Control Committee, an obscure band from Ohio, decided to spread its song Rocked by Rape via Napster," wrote Jesse Walker in Reason almost two years ago. "It did this by renaming the file to look like rare tracks from popular bands. Other artists soon adopted the practice—dubbed Napster bombing in the press—while foes of free music put mislabeled recordings of silence or cacophony into the system. Apparently, the same qualities that make Napster and Gnutella so subversive also make them easy to subvert."

You want pre-screened, high-quality content? Youve just re-invented the task of the entertainment impresario or the academic journal editor, a function needed now more than ever.

More recently, Hacktivismos Camera/Shy steganography tool offered end users a convenient implementation of the 2500-year-old concept of steganography, disguising not merely the content of a message but even the fact that a message is being sent. NetIQ promptly claimed to have developed a tool to detect the use of Camera/Shy, but that path leads nowhere: if the embedded content is competently encrypted before its concealed, any perturbation of the "carrier" data will be indistinguishable from ordinary (heres that word again) noise.

How much time and money can anyone afford to spend looking for needles in haystacks, especially when the needles themselves have been altered to look and feel like pieces of straw? Anyone who believes that network content can be scanned, by purely technical means, for suspicious or unlawful content is ignoring simple arithmetic.

And unlike my colleague Jim Rapoza, Im not even slightly ambivalent about whether this technology should be somehow limited in its distribution. (See Jim Rapozas eLABoration) I believe that such limitations are impossible, as in 0.000 percent feasibility, and that the ethics of limitation are therefore as irrelevant as the utility of antigravity.

If the downward spiral of the Net seems at all surprising, its because the Internet began as an exclusive community of people with a high degree of shared values and goals. Its like the fraternal spirit that was said to exist among the first generation of military aviators: they had more in common with each other than with whatever ideology sent them up there to fight.

Getting on the Internet today, though, is so easy—and it will become still easier—that we cant make any assumptions about whomever we encounter there. If you cant handle the modern Nets plummeting ratio of signal to noise, go find a new frontier. And be judicious in whom you invite to come with you.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at