Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It

Yesterday I finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

This is an excellent text with a lot of detail and which tells a very troubling story about the way technology and society are heading.

He starts with an outline of the history of the internet and how the conditions at that time enabled it to develop as an open network and the benefits that have arisen particularly through amateur coding. He then goes on to discuss the notion of generativity, and the rise in security related incidents as a trigger for the move to closed networks and tethered devices . In the last section of the book he uses this background to then discuss the solutions that need to be developed and implemented in order to ensure that innovation and progress can be achieved into the future whilst maintaining a reasonable level of security.

He suggests that a ‘lockdown of PCs and a corresponding rise of tethered appliances will eliminate what today we take for granted: a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field.’ [at pg5]

Zittrain defines generativity as ‘a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated changes through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences’ and suggests that there are three fundamental principles that must be kept in mind:

  1. Our information technology system functions best with generative technology at its core
  2. Generativity instigates a pattern both within and beyond the technological layers of the information technology ecosystem
  3. Proponents of generative systems ignore the drawbacks attendant to generativity at their peril because these systems are not inherently self sustaining [at pg 64 - 67]

In assessing the generative capacity of technology there are five areas of consideration – how extensively a system or technology leverages a set of possible tasks, how well it can be adapted to a range of tasks, how easily new contributors can master it, how accessible it is to those ready and able to build on it, and how transferable changes are to others - particularly non experts. [at pg 71]

Generativity on one layer enhances generativity on other layers with the two central benefits being that which is derived from unexpected development and the inclusion of the public at large. The flow on effect from the technical layers is an open and vibrant content and social layer with culture, political, social, economic and literary pursuits all enhanced by an open and innovative environment. [at pg 74-80 & 93]

The impact of closed networks and tethered devices could be catastrophic with the enablement of perfect regulation. This includes contingent services whereby functionality is changed without users consent or at the request of a court. He suggests that attempts at regulating the internet have been less than perfect to date because the end points remain open. If this were allowed to change, content could be deleted, surveillance would be enabled, fair use will be lost, regulation will become cheaper and more convenient, and unlike the legal system, the effects would be immediate. [pg 101 – 122]

He urges readers to acknowledge that while there are immediate and short term threats posed by open networks, these also give rise to long term benefits. [pg 126]

Stopping the rise of closed devices and PCs requires: Some locks and enabling a level of security in which most can function without constant threat; new technologies, particularly those which allow enhanced community participation in reviewing and evaluating code; social norms supporting innovation, and multiple gatekeepers rather than just a handful of very powerful and profit driven commercial entities.

Zittrain sees the need for maintaining distributed control, unlimited bandwidth, the development of peer systems for rating content (Herdict as one example), individual liability for harm done on the internet rather than forced changes to technology, the need to provide consumer protection for closed software and networks including a ‘right of portability of data’, neutrality of the internet, an opening of devices to allow for third party applications, enhancement of privacy protections, and clarification of uncertainties with respect to intellectual property law (both copyright and patents) as being fundamental areas in which more can be done to ensure generativity is maintained. [at pg 5 & 159-172]

While I am not from a technology background (user not developer) I found this book both educational and interesting. I found the level of detail both (awe)inspiring and at times overwhelming and needed to summarise and take notes as I went – I would like to see a much shorter version for the people that he is trying to convert. Education of the general public is the central underlying purpose of the book and while it is an excellent text I'm not convinced he can do that without making the message much simpler.

While I think many people are moving to tethered devices more out of a desire for portability at the moment than because of security threats the consequences are the same.

I read this for pleasure as I openly acknowledge that I am not on the technical layer of the internet and am more concerned with the content and social layers, but I still got a lot out of it and would highly recommend it to others – but take your time with it – you cannot read this in a few days. It is available for free downloading on his website but I suggest purchasing as it is too long to read online, printing it will be much the same price and this is a book you will want to keep.

More information

Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it (2008) <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0300124872?ie=UTF8&tag=jonatzittr-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0300124872> at 12 August 2008

Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it Website (2008) <http://futureoftheinternet.org/> at 12 August 2008

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