Calling the Internet PoliceS

Life in the cloud is all well and good until a server goes down. Tweetage Wasteland's David Pell posits on the pitfalls of entrusting our offline lives to online services.

A few months ago my friend Hudson was working on a new and promising internet business. He hired contractors for most of the work – design, graphics, engineering. Once the site was done and ready for launch, his engineer called him and demanded more money.

After Hudson rightfully said no, the engineer responded by hijacking the site, right down to the domain name. And he did a pretty good job of it. No one could help. Other engineers didn't have the required credentials. His hosting provider had no means to solve the problem. And even his registrar couldn't figure out a good way around the hack that the engineer had devised to hold the site and its contents hostage.

At the height of the dispute, the engineer taunted Hudson with this question:

"What are you gonna do, call the Internet Police?"

The situation was ultimately resolved. But during the thick of it, Hudson called me since I've spent the last decade and a half working with Internet companies, launching sites, and investing in tech startups. But I had nothing useful to offer. I had no idea how to get his site back.

Even for people like me who live and work on the web, there is a constant, underlying feeling that something core to our lives is one or more steps removed from our control.

And almost no one is completely immune to that sensation. Recently, several of the top sites on the Internet went down for several hours because of problems at a single data center run by Amazon.

During a major New Year's Eve fire in San Francisco, key personnel at the city's Division of Emergency Services were reduced to taking notes with a paper and pencil. The organization's main computer system had crashed. Why didn't someone just get the backup system running? Because no one knew the password.

In these cases, from the rogue engineer to the missing password, everyone at least knew what went wrong, who to blame and the people who could fix the problem. That is rare. I usually know something has gone wrong, but I really don't have any idea what it is.

It's always been frustrating when a technology you depend on doesn't function properly. But it's becoming even more alarming as many of us move our work and personal lives onto the cloud.

The other day, the Internet access in my office went down. I began where I always begin - I restarted my modem. I've been told by so many technical support staffers to restart so many modems that it's become my first reaction to almost everything. If a site doesn't load, or my email doesn't arrive, or I twist an ankle, I restart my modem. And it never works.

I called my access provider for a service status update. No problems to report. I rebooted my laptop. I unplugged and re-plugged every cable and power cord within a thousand yards of my desk. Someone in my office lobby suggested that I reset my modem with a paperclip. "I'm an internet professional," I shouted, "Where am I gonna find a paperclip?"

I was cut off. I wanted to check my bank account balance. I wanted to Tweet and blog. I needed to connect with friends on Facebook. I wanted to see my kids' beautiful faces on Flickr. Maybe I could just escape from it all and get a nice relaxing massage. But no, I couldn't access Groupon to get my half-price massage deal. Even my offline life is online. I was left alone, alienated from almost everything key to my daily existence. Refresh. Web page not available. Refresh. Server not found. Refresh. Nothing. Refresh, refresh, refresh.

"I give!" I screamed. "Whoever or whatever turned off my internet, you're the boss. You own me. Please make it come back."

And about 45 minutes later, it did.

But I don't know why it did. And there's the rub.

So much of my daily life is hosted in the cloud - websites, finances, news, entertainment, social interactions, family connections, schedules, notes, memories, business transactions - and yet I have no real control over any of it.

At least my friend Hudson can complain that someone else hijacked his site. I've handed myself over to the cloud of my own free will. Sure, right now that seems fine. But at any moment, I know I can be cut off - from one site or from the whole network of computers that hold among them the contents of my life. And there's not a thing the Internet Police or anyone else can do about it.

This is all starting to depress me. Maybe I'll restart my modem and see if that helps.

Dave Pell is an internet addict, early adopter, and insider. He has even been known to tweet.

Imagery by Gizmodo Illustrator Sam Spratt. Become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page and follow Sam on Twitter