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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[…]

Google’s threat to exit China, due in part to severe government censorship, indicates yet another failure of state officials to grapple with unprecedented complexities of regulating the internet.

Question: Is the internet forcing a new set of international laws?

Jonathan Zittrain:  I don’t think the internet requires some new compact, but it’s certainly starting to show its age.  I believe it was designed at a time, over 30 years ago, 40 years ago, and among a group of people, that they had what I call a procrastination principle.  They wanted, in the words later, of Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia, to release early, release often, don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.  Come out with a network, get it a little bit working, get it a little bit better, deploy it one note at a time, let people sign up as they want to within this set of notes, academic and research institutions, and we’ll solve other problems as they come up.  And I think that turns out to be a very powerful strategy and not the kind of strategy you see often in inter-governmental and treaty organizations, when they design something, in their minds, I think they’re often designing it for the next thousand years.  They want to get everything just right and any problem that is brought up is a potential problem.  Why?  What if somebody does something illegal over this network?  They feel they have to build in some way of redressing that concern before the first bit even flows across it.

The internet, to my eye, was not built that way and that has made it extremely powerful, it made it out-compete other networks.  But to me, it’s the procrastination principle, it’s not the denial principle, and that means that at some point, we may have to reckon with some of the problems that were kicked down the road.  And certainly as a experimental network is now used for mission critical tasks, people entrust their financial information through it, that kind of thing, we start to see just how well procrastinating can keep working.  Can we do everything at the so-called application layer?  Keep the network the same but have you and your bank figure out a way to talk more securely with each other?  Maybe, but that’s starting to expect an awful lot of you and maybe there are ways to try to make the network more secure in a number of dimensions.

So that’s why I think the next five to ten years in the so-called internet governance space is going to be very interesting.  My instinct tells me that the next set of innovations we’ll see around the network will come from unexpected quarters, not from inter-governmental agreements and treaties that somehow are supposed to change the fundamental fabric of the net by phi at. 

Question: What is the state of governmental censorship of the internet?

Jonathan Zittrain:  Well, when I think of governmental censorship on the web, and this is a project I’ve worked on as part of the Open Net Initiative, along with the Berkman Center, the University of Toronto, and something called the SecDev Group, they’re kind of two contradictory poles.  On one pole, I believe that each day on average it’s a little bit easier to push information from here to there.  There’s just that many more devices out there, bandwidth is getting better, it’s just harder to keep a secret out there.  So on that pole it says, if you are an authoritarian government, and at least you’re not hermetically sealed the way, say, North Korea is, this is making life harder as far as censorship goes.

On the other hand, we do see regimes and bureaucracies that really didn’t have the internet on radar at all.  They had strict censorship in place for television, mass media, newspapers coming in at the borders, but just weren’t thinking much about the internet.  They now are.  And in places like China, we see very sophisticated, increasingly sophisticated schemes for driving people away from information they might be wanting to get and we see a populace that, by and large, is not necessarily up in arms about it.  There may be an active, small, free speech segment, but the typical person on the street, when trying to get somewhere and there’s a network error, might not even know that the government isn’t wanting them to get there, but says, “Okay, fine, I’m going to go somewhere else.”  Just as we would in another regime, when the network happens to be slow going to Facebook, it’s like, “Okay, I’ll visit Twitter now,” or whatever it might be.

So it’ll be worth keeping an eye as to which of these poles will predominant.  And some of the factors that will be wild cards here include how much governments will turn to surveillance, and not just filtering, so that they use the fact that you went to get to a website that might be sensitive as a reason to keep a file on you or augment the file they have on you. And when you put that together with the ability through ubiquitous human computing, to hire tons of people to do small tasks, like keep an eye on X and tell me what you see, in the physical world counterpart, it would be, “Here’s a section of border fence, watch it for the next 20 minutes and if you see anybody, press the following button.”  You could actually see people around the world being enlisted to help spy on other people around the world.  Not even necessarily knowing what they’re doing or why.

Social media, of course, is also a wild card here.  It turns out that I think something like Twitter is a little harder to filter on average, because there are so many different API’s, different ways in and out of Twitter that just blocking doesn’t do the trick, and that a formerly innocuous site, a blog about woodworking, can suddenly become very sensitive because it embeds automatically a feed from somewhere else, a Twitter feed, and can suddenly start carrying Iran election news.

On the other hand, I think what you see from some governments, is an attempt to start mastering those chaotic social media, pumping disinformation in, so that you can’t trust anything you see there.  And that might make it harder to have any idea what’s going on, because of the cacophony that you see. 

Recorded on August 18, 2009