Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Internet's future lies in our hands

Reading "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It" was a little like reading the history of the Internet minus any comic genius or mentions to how Al Gore "supposedly" invented the Net. (I never believed he did, but have always found the story amusing.)

That said, the book provides some extremely valuable context for those of us who are new to Internet studies. The information is alarming yet Zittrain doesn't seem interested in sparking a hysterical frenzy. Instead, like any respectable lawyer, he presents a balanced and informed argument that is relevant to everyone.

The fact that Zittrain's main argument - that "restrictive tools and rash approaches to security challenges are endangering the health of the online ecosystem" - seems both a bit far-fetched yet terrifyingly accurate at the same time adds some intrigue to the book. (Nov. 28, 2007 CNET News article)

The book is obviously much more nuanced, but Zittrain's key argument can be summarized by a few lines published in the Nov. 2007 CNET News article.
"You can call Zittrain's theme the AOL-ization of technology. Instead of personal computers being able to run any program from any source without approval from a third party--which many of us were used to in the 1980s and 1990s--Zittrain fears we're entering a world where centralized approval becomes necessary.
Examples are numerous: Apple's lockdown of the iPhone. Some Google applications that say developers can't "disparage" the company. Facebook.com's copyright policy for developers that says if the application permits file-sharing, they must "register an agent for notices of copyright infringements with the U.S. Copyright Office." Some terms of service agreements that require disclosure of source code."
Put another way, it is Zittrain's belief that the Internet has transformed from a "generative" one in which innovation was due to provided software of hardware... to a "tethered" one in which users use tethered appliances like iPhones and digital cameras which are "locked down" to develop new content, source code, programs, etc. He argues throughout the book that even PC's are in "lock down" mode, preventing users from making changes that may or may not improve their experience.

I should clarify that when Zittrain uses the term "generative," he is referring to technologies and networks like your standard PC that allow "tinkering and all sorts of creative uses." When he uses the term "tethered," however, he is referring to networks and technologies that discourage any sort of tinkering. "Basically, “take it or leave it” proprietary devices like Apple’s iPhone or the TiVo, or online walled gardens like the old AOL and current cell phone networks"(http://techliberation.com/2008/03/23/review-of-zittrains-future-of-the-internet/).

The problem with "locked down" and/or tethered machines, he states, is that...:
"When endpoints are locked down, and producers are unable to deliver innovative products directly to users, openness in the middle of the network becomes meaningless. Open highways do not mean freedom when they are so dangerous that one never ventures from the house" (165).
Zittrain goes on to argue that the Internet's final stake really does make a difference and that the ongoing battles between flexibility/openness and security/reliability need to be addressed with creativity rather than reactionary mandates supporting either doctrine. He supports this theory by noting that IBM, AT&T and Microsoft were all forced to unbundle their products when the U.S. Government decided they were working afoul of anti-trust regulations. Google hasn't met this fate, but Zittrain believes it is only a matter of time before the watchdogs catch on and force Google to dissolve some of its market share.

Like most authors we've read this semester, Zittrain doesn't offer a definite solution to the questions he poses. He says that publicity may help if Internet users can be persuaded to consider the trade-offs involved in using the Net.

Another solution he offers is something called the Green-Red split system, which involves one computer system that's locked down and totally reliable (Green) and another that's open to innovation (Red.) Zittrain writes positively of the concept, but it seems a bit far-fetched to me. Getting your average citizen used to one system can be onerous enough. I can't imagine how many could navigate two systems, even if they're easily navigable.

To me, the most likely solution Zittrain offers is the concept of distributed control, the backbone of Wikipedia. He argues that the combination of limited regulation and a neighborhood watch-type environment is bound to be successful, as the combination can preserve the creative spirit which has spurred multiple innovations without getting embroiled in the worst of the security issues plaguing other options.

This is seen on page 147, when Zittrain writes:
"Wikipedia has since come to stand for the idea that involvement of people in the information they read - whether to fix a typographical error or to join a debate over its veracity or completeness - is an important end itself, one made possible by the recursive generativity of a network that welcomes new outposts without gatekeepers; of software that can be created and deployed at those outposts; and of an ethos that welcomes new ideas without gatekeepers, one that asks the people bearing those ideas to argue for and substantiate them to those who question."

Overall, Zittrain makes a very compelling argument for open-source code and the more general idea that users should have an active role in governing the Net. It'll be interesting to see how things continue to pan out and whether there's enough interest to generate more of a Wikipedia-like environment on the Web.

3 comments:

Mary Goes To School said...

Zittrain's statistics were kind of scary, but they weren't too shocking because most people already know that lots spam and viruses are out there, even if we didn't want to admit it. It will be interesting to see what that breaking point is for the public in general, and what the solution will be.

Whether it's a Wikipedia-type solution or more like the Apple App Store, it may include some kind of oversight and standards that have not previously been part of the equation. How easily will people give up freedom for safety?

John Kay said...

Zittrain’s green/red computer idea interested me. It seems “far-fetched” as you say, but the idea might be a necessary catalyst. I hope that whatever the solutions are for the generative/security dilemma that the internet and PCs are able to keep the “creative spirit,” which Zittrain champions.

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