Review: The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

June 12, 2008

The concept of the Net as a ‘generative’ entity is at the heart of Jonathan Zittrain’s newly published book, ‘The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It’. Generativity is a measure of how many new, possibly unexpected, and sometimes useful things can be developed thanks to an available platform. He lists a number of famous generative items such as duct tape and Lego bricks as examples of basic generative technologies all of which will incorporate characteristics key to the concept, such as adaptability, ease of mastery, accessibility, and transferability. At the net’s core are the Internet protocols, and these, combined with the operating systems of personal computers, have provided a successful platform for a period of rapid innovation.

He uses the launch of the Apple II PC some 30 years ago as a prime example of this central concept. The Apple PC was a quintessentially generative component of the Internet, one which launched a revolution in offering a ‘blank slate’ to its users, freeing them from the constraints of the previous technology which had been much more narrowly task specific and controlling of the use to be made of it. The Apple II was a platform taken up by specialists and hobbyists alike and inherently flexible in that it could be programmed by users themselves, or they could rely on software written and shared, or sold by others.

Zittrain contrasts this with the launch thirty years later of the iPhone which he sees as characteristic of a very different and potentially unwelcome trend:

‘Rather than a platform that invites innovation, the iPhone comes pre-programmed. You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device that Steve Jobs sells you. Its functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates…….The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple …..wanted. Whereas the world would innovate for the Apple II, only Apple would innovate for the iPhone.’

For Zittrain the PC revolution became a fundamental element in the development of the Internet as a facilitator of innovation. Both PCs and the Internet could accept any contribution that followed a basic set of rules, in the case of PCs coding for a particular operating system and, in the case of the Internet, by observing the defined protocols. PCs became the endpoints of the Internet and their architecture permitted reprogramming and repurposing by anyone. By these means, contemporary proprietary competitors of the day, such as manufacturers of stand-alone word processors like Brother and online services like CompuServe or AOL, were beaten off into runners up positions and ultimately competitive defeat.

Central to these developments were the concepts of simplicity and trust. The users and network configurers were trusted to have a degree of competence as well as appropriate standards so that they would not intentionally disrupt or damage the network. As a result the Internet did not have design characteristics which provided for the management of personal identity (as opposed to the identity of the machine through which the user gained access), nor did its architecture provide guarantees as to transmission speed between two points. In the first case this design omission led to the problems of identifying wrongdoers online, and in the latter, as Zittrain dryly remarks, the Internet’s protocols assume that all packets of data are intended to be delivered with equal ‘lack of urgency’. The working assumption was to keep things simple on the basis that problems could be solved as they evolved by those with the motivation to do so and that such people would act from the best motives. The astonishing thing is that a network founded on such principles ever made the leap as successfully as it did from the quiet backwaters of academe to a position where it was embraced globally by the general public and by commercial enterprise and became the Internet as we know it today.

While at first the Internet seemed to scale well, the design characteristics which made it successful also contained the seeds of its potential undoing. While simplicity and trust can flourish in small communities, they face more of an uphill struggle as scale increases.

Open to the world at large, the question of security became a major issue. The volume of spam and malware has grown exponentially in recent years after relatively slow growth earlier. In the same way that the Internet grew out of its academic origins so malware has grown from amateur origins, where there was a nuisance value but usually little harm done, to become a pervasive, far-reaching, and seemingly ever growing arena for organised crime.

Zittrain’s fear however is that the nature of the now only too evident security vulnerability will lead to increasing ‘lock down’ of the Internet at a number of levels and that such developments could kill off the generative elements and the potential for innovation which have been such positive characteristics to date. The two major threats are locked down devices such as the iPhone, the Tivo, and the Xbox, and controlled networks. He sees products like the iPhone as characterising a battle between the good and the bad guys. It is not just a case of inability to program a device to perform in any way the user may want but also of the extent to which vendors control and direct their users, for example by sending them automated updates including ones that deliberately disable previously available features.

If the bad guys win, the future of the Internet will not be one comprising generative PCs attached to a generative network but one marked by the prevalence of ultimately restrictive appliances tethered to a network of control. ‘Appliances’ and ‘appliancization’ are the enemies of generativity. The key issue, as he perceives it, is the need for the Internet and the PC to remain ‘sufficiently central in the digital ecosystem to compete with locked-down appliances and facilitate the next round of innovations. The balance between the two spheres is precarious and is slipping towards the safer appliance.’

In setting out this thesis he by no means denies the place for and the role of appliances. He acknowledges that tethered appliances like the iPhone take innovations already created by the Internet and package them neatly and compellingly. Tethered devices are therefore acknowledged to be dependent upon generative technologies, and complementary to them rather than simple substitutes. What is important, Zittrain argues, is where these appliances reside within the digital ecosystem and the relative weight of them compared with the generative elements that are essential to providing a distributed platform for innovation.

The final section of the book is dedicated to a search for solutions and improved approaches to the management of these threats. Here Zittrain’s enthusiasm is for self regulation, for the better organisation of netizens with various skill levels and for the creation of tools whereby the less technically able can be helped to judge the security dangers in the activities they undertake. He clearly has been inspired by the success of Wikipedia as an example of self regulation at the Internet’s ‘content layer’, and and he is keen to explore new ways of doing things at the technical level, for example the possibilities for using virtual machines in experimental ways to see whether it is possible to find the right or better balances between security and control on the one hand and openness and generativity on the other. There is a huge amount of information here and many of the cases and examples explored are fascinating in themselves. The chapter on the lessons of Wikipedia alone is worth reading by anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of the evolution of Wikipedia’s governance and control systems .

This is a densely argued book, copiously referenced and footnoted. It is both historical, creating a great sense of perspective as to the origins and development of the Internet and much that is connected to it, and analytical, in a way that makes clear that legal controls and regulation are but one part of a broader toolkit for tackling the problems and challenges Zittrain identifies. It is also philosophical in tone since behind the detailed factual considerations of the minutiae of Internet life Zittrain constantly considers where the best approaches might be found from a libertarian perspective. The density of the text and the arguments mean that this is not an easy read. There is far too much to take in from a single reading, but revisiting chapters and sections is well worth the effort.

A vigorous debate about some of the concepts and issues has already commenced. Some have challenged what they see as a too simple dichotomy between personal computers on the one hand and tethered appliances on the other, while others have challenged the notion that consumers retreating to the safety of appliances as opposed to sticking with applications would be correct in believing that such steps in themselves in any way guarantee security or adequately manage privacy risks.

Jonathan Zittrain is an optimist. He has described himself as someone who arrived at his chosen field with ‘a nerd like joy in what the technology offers’ and it is this joy and fascination in what the Internet has offered, now offers, and, all being well, might offer, that shines through all of the threats and difficulties of the Internet as a technology platform so ably described in this welcome new book.

Bill Jones is a member of the Technology Group at Wragge & Co and is the SCL Chair.