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Can Internet's Wailing Wall Double as Life Preserver?

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Social networks have become an electronic wailing wall where humanity shares its pain, grief and jubilation in a cathartic rush.

The potency of mass therapy has been demonstrated time and again in our response to extraordinary events such as 9/11, Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to the White House and most recently, the untimely death of pop star Michael Jackson. Twitter and Google were over the top, systems crashed and the boundless Web hit bottom in a torrent of responses.

A column by Dean Takahashi on Venture Beat in the days following Jackson’s death triggered questions about the broader implications of the Internet’s flawed performance.

Could the Internet prove more effective and reliable rallying people and resources in a time of national crisis? Could the Internet master an emergency call-to-action in dire circumstances, or would it simply continue to serve as a repository for emotional vetting? Does the Internet have the capacity and technical chops to function as a universal life saver? Can the Web be unplugged, rendering us helpless?

Despite its origin as a safe haven for the federal government’s computerized data, the Net knows best these days how to facilitate our voracious appetite for popular culture, gossip, politics and even social tragedy. The initial news of Jackson’s death generated 5 of the top 10 searches on Twitter, 65,000 texts on AT&T, seven of the top 10 album sales on Apple, and 60% of the music sales on Amazon. It required the creation of a stand-alone spotlight Michael Jackson sub site on YouTube, sent Time Warner’s TMZ.com site (that first reported his death) crashing and threw dozens of other news sites into a stall. The “volcanic” spike in traffic prompted Google into malware attack mode. Internet usage topped 4.2 million visitors per minute worldwide in the hours following Jackson’s death– more than double the norm.

Days later, MJ fans continue to flood the Web with an outpouring of affection and hastily organized vigils and group moonwalk dances from Los Angeles to London. The New York Times noted it is “a virtual town square for information on where and when to celebrate the man and his music.”

In what might be the greatest irony of a tragic life, Michael Jackson eventually could be worth more than he was at the time of his death if his personal items are auctioned, video of rehearsals for his final “This is It” concert tour are ever released, and the remaining Jackson family members repackage their planned reunion tour as a tribute to their little brother. Just imagine the profits.

However, the true test of the Internet’s value will be how it functions in the kind of national crisis none of us want.

The new cyber security bill proposed by the Obama administration allows for, among other things, the President to seize control of Web traffic, networks and exchange of information in the case of a national crisis. Public and private network operators, including corporations, would be united in developing regulations for defending computer systems before and during cyber attacks.

That raises the question of just how well guarded is the Internet against interruption or tampering as the most speedy, reliable way to impart critical information to citizens especially in an emergency? A cursory Web search reveals that greater minds at places such as MIT, Cisco and the government have contemplated such calamity, but it is unclear the extent to which the Internet is secure. Talk still swirls around the need for more load tests, certifying adequate server capacity and securing a back-up national wireless network.

As long as cyberspace belongs to the mob and the masses can it serve as a lifeline when we need it?

ZDNet pointed to the flurry of malicious campaigns launched within hours of Jackson’s death. Cyber criminals appeared to have a field day with spam campaigns as well as compromised and fake web sites.

An instructive slide presentation on Emergency use of Internet Communications Facilities suggests plenty of skill and thought have already gone into using the web for emergency purposes. Still, there is uniform assessment that the Emergency Alert System has its limitations and tat the Internet overall could be better leveraged in case of a national emergency. There is much more that major corporate players could do even though social networking services such as Microsoft’s Vine and Google’s Latitude
smack of public safety initiatives that seek to keep family and friends connected through GPS, email, SMS texting and other means with local news information.

Summaries of emergency agencies and management sites are situated side-by-side studies of the Internet’s possible shortfalls in time of emergency.

It is difficult to get your arms around the magnitude of the subject. Still, amid the MJ frenzy, one can’t help but wonder why the same passion and resources are not obviously being invested in the life-preserving role and responsibilities of the Internet and all related cyber elements. While it may not be a headline-buster, nothing seems more crucial.

Diane Mermigas does not directly own Internet or media stocks.