Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Jonathan Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Vice Dean for Library and Information[…]

Lincoln put it well: are we capable of governing ourselves?

Question: Can we trust the Internet to regulate itself?

Jonathan Zittrain: Well, without getting overly dramatic, I think the fundamental question, posed by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address-- the model of pithiness before there were boilerplate templates for speech writing, and phalanxes of speechwriters to use their word processors-- was, are we capable of governing ourselves? That's the question he was asking, not entirely sure of the answer. I think the internet is asking us that question too. I almost see it as a grid with four quadrants, so follow the bouncing ball along with me as I map it out. On the horizontal axis, you could imagine hierarchy on the one side, and polyarchy on the other. One system, or many competing systems. On the other axis, vertically, you have bottom up and top down, what I would also call generative and sterile. And you can park any number of technologies in any one of those four quadrants. The internet protocols, everybody basically has to follow. If you are on the internet and not using internet protocol, your bits aren't going anywhere. And in that sense, it's a hierarchy. It's on this side of the chart. But, it wasn't developed by a formal organization. Internet protocol, the fundamental unit of telecommunications in the 21st century, was not developed by any formal organization. It was not created by a government taskforce. It was made by something called the IETF, the internet engineering taskforce, an unincorporated group of engineers, informal, academics, government people, some business people moonlighting. And they got together and came up with some internet protocols. And in that sense, I say their enterprise fits into this quadrant, what you say is the bottom left. It's hierarchical, because we all have to basically sing that song if we're going to be on the internet, but it is bottom up. It's not that formal, and stiff as to how it will be developed and implemented. The rest of the internet that those protocols over here enable would be parked in this corner, because it's polyarchical. Once you're using internet protocol, if you're Jimbo, you can set up Wikipedia, and find. If you're Tim Berners-Lee, you can set up the web and invite other people to set up web servers, and invite another group of people to set up web clients, and we have the collective hallucination that it's the world wide web, which at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of computers serving up files that look like web pages, because they're singing the same song that Tim Berners-Lee invented. So in that sense, it's hierarchy, but it's just one of different protocols you could use here. When stuff goes south, in this quadrant, which is the polyarchical, bottom up quadrant, we have to figure out what to do. Somebody starts abusing the net. They create software that starts working ill on PCs. They start vandalizing something like Wikipedia. What do you do about it? One answer is just self-help. If there's a false Wikipedia entry, you should just be an informed consumer, and be able to recognize false from true. Or if you have a PC full of viruses, you should just know how to cleanse it, or what firewall to buy to protect it. I'm not sure that just getting everybody a shotgun, or expecting them to go get one, is going to solve every problem. In fact, I know it won't,even though a lot of the crypto-anarchists among us could be caricatured as having that view. Once you feel that you need something more, the general instinct is to go up. I want a top down solution, either in a polyarchical top down, let some firm compete with another firm to solve my problem. So I'll choose among Norton and MacAfee and whatever it is, Symantec, the various vendors, as to which solution I'll buy. But it's cash and carry, let somebody else worry about it. That's the essence of sterile. It's not me; it's someone else's problem that I'm paying to have solved. That has its own problems, because once there's a new gatekeeper that is deciding how to solve the problem down here, that is not connected, it's removed from the people having and experiencing the problem, you get into issues of gatekeeping and control. The other option you'd go to would be over here, into the upper left corner, hierarchy, top down. Basically, government. I want the government to come in and say, "I don't care what you all think. This is the rule: you can't kill people." Anybody kills somebody, I don't want to hear it's a community of people that kill each other. World of Warcraft works that way. World of Warcraft, I would put probably over here in between top down and bottom up, and polyarchical. You can decide whether you want a kill server or a no kill server, but that's because the kills aren't real. There's stuff important enough that we want government to come in and make a rule. That may well be called for, for some of these problems. But before we jump upward, either to the firm or to the government, I want to se the bottom left corner make its move. Hierarchical, but bottom up. Ways of solving the problems together as a community.


Recorded on: 3/8/08