It would be easy to ignore a book called The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It . First, it predicts the progress of technology, which as every engineer knows is a risky business. Second, it seems to inveigh against one of the most successful and transformative inventions of our time. Has author Jonathan Zittrain, a cofounder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, suddenly become a modern Luddite, urging us to abandon the connectivity we have come to love?
Not to worry. Zittrain favors this connectivity and wants us to nurture it. The foundation of his argument is that the Internet fosters creative, collaborative invention—that it is, in a word, generative . This generativity arose in part because of its creators’ architectural principles. One such principle called for the Internet Protocol to be like the neck of an hourglass—slender yet open to all. Another principle was to move, whenever possible, all functions to host computer systems at the edge of the Internet. Together these two principles ensured that the middle of the network didn’t interfere with end-user innovations, such as better search tools or streaming media.
Zittrain considers two opposing challenges to generativity. One challenge, intrinsic to any generative network, is insecurity. Users control their computers and therefore control the network as a whole, inflicting on others any harm they please, such as spam and viruses.
The second challenge comes from outside the Internet. Carriers, service providers, and governments impose technologies that lock down our systems so that we, the end users, cannot control anything but their most trivial aspects. Zittrain calls such imposition ”perfect enforcement,” and he notes that it can be brought to bear through technical and legal constructs designed to prevent creative use or to revoke existing capabilities. One key example originated outside the Internet but is all too applicable to it—a court decision that ordered EchoStar to disable the ”record” function in its customers’ set-top boxes, a function its users had already purchased (or thought they had).
Zittrain’s most controversial and novel point concerns cloud computing, in which data and software reside on remote servers instead of securely within one’s own computer. Many would characterize cloud computing and related technologies as highly generative, but Zittrain argues that rather than liberating us from perfect enforcement, the freedom to ”mash up” services may make it even easier to lock down our data and software.
So is this the way the Internet’s generativity ends, with robotic spies and saboteurs everywhere you click? A sterile, Stepford-like sameness? Entrepreneurs fighting to control and profit from your every move?
Not necessarily. Despite these dark and powerful forces, Zittrain suggests we can save the Internet. The temptation to create schemes for perfect enforcement can and ought to be resisted, both by governmental regulators seeking policy solutions to social problems and by users seeking safety. Zittrain has no silver bullets but argues that collective action by self-organized groups of users could solve these problems. Wikipedia is one example of such a self-governing generative system.
Zittrain concludes with a speculative discussion of what he calls ”Privacy 2.0,” the challenges to personal and social privacy that arise from pervasive real-time sensing, data capture, permanent logging, inference, and dissemination. Those challenges are still in their early stages, but the costs of capturing, storing, and transmitting data are falling so fast that huge volumes of information about our personal and social activities are being archived throughout the Internet in places controlled by people and organizations who have never before had the ability to link to or analyze such information.