Why is the future of the Internet so bleak?
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 Resources for the Harvard Law School Library, and Co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Previously, he was the Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University and a principal of the Oxford Internet Institute. He was also a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law and Stanford Law School.
Zittrain’s research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.
He is also the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, as well as co-editor of the books, Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Access Contested (MIT Press, 2011).
Question: Why is the future of the Internet so bleak?
Jonathan Zittrain: I think I've come to an appreciation of just how much of a historical accident it is, that the global network we all use is the internet. There were other contenders to be the network. It might have been CompuServe or Prodigy or AOL or Minitel or MCI Mail, or any other number of proprietary networks that, in 1993, people were just wondering which one would win. Kind of like which of the long distance companies, back in the day when you had four phones on your desk, so somebody only with a red phone could be called by your red phone, which would be the AT&T. And to have a network like the internet end up winning that battle, truly the dark horse candidate, one without a CEO, without a business plan, without a revenue model, without content, without a main menu? This thing is just the blinking cursor of networks. Paradoxically, that made it maximally open to the content and activities that anybody could invent. And it's that openness to third party application that I say is wonderful. And a good part of the first part of the book is a celebration of that story, followed by worry, because when you have systems, technologies, platforms, that are open to third party contribution, they start off great in a backwater. The people who use them share a lot in common with one another. It's like a bunch of nerds, and they do cool things with it. But when it goes mainstream, if the rough edges aren't sanded off, it opens up the prospect for abuse. And by that, I mean the fact that we have on our desks PCs that are fundamentally the same as the Apple II personal computer, introduced by Steve Jobs as a 21 year old in 1977, a hobbyist's machine, personal computer. That we have them in businesses now, in schools, and everywhere, it's now open to executable code, not that we choose, but that somebody else chooses to deposit on the machine and trick us into running, or through a flaw, just automatically runs it on the machine, and we didn't even realize it. To me, when I look at the rich information environment we have now, the tightly coupled one where, within ten minutes, you could have a well-written worm work its way from the first machine to the next 100 million, within ten minutes. Or you can have web pages that deal out drive by downloads, so the mere act of visiting the wrong website can permanently poison your machine. I start to think, "Well, what if our televisions were that way?" And suddenly your TV is on the fritz. The blues are green and the greens are blue, and you call to get it checked under the warranty. They say, "Oh, were you watching Channel 27? Were you watching the Disney special friends channel at 9pm last Thursday? Because there was a virus on that channel, and now your machine has to be sent back to the factory, or totally--" I mean, we would just not accept it, any more than we would in our refrigerator. "Oh, you put the wrong food in the fridge and now the fridge has been infected by the fridge virus. Now it's only going to warm your food instead of cool it." It's just unacceptable. So as this happens more and more with our PC technology, and to some extent, our internet technology, people will start looking for the appliance solution at a time when they can get it. That's where we turn to iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, X Boxes, and a whole range of web enabled applications that substitute for what the PC would do. If you were told today, in 2008, that you're allowed to be on the internet, but you only get on your PC a browser. You can't use any other application. You can't use Skype or Instant Messenger. You can't use word processors like Word or WordPerfect. If you were told that a year ago, that would actually put a crimp in your plans. Today, not a big deal. You could do your docs on Google Docs, your spreadsheets on Google Spreadsheets, your email on Gmail, your social networking on Facebook, and there's web versions of IM. You'd get along fine. But it's not as generative, or at least, as permanently generative a platform, as the old fashioned PC.
Recorded on: 3/8/08
Our computers are completely vulnerable to hijackings and ambush, Zittrain says.
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