Review: The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It

In preparation for a paper exploring business strategies for digital publishing via mobile networks, in this post I will review the book “The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It1 written by professor of Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Jonathan Zittrain.

In contrast to approaches where compromises on network neutrality on a network level are pivotal, Zittrain focuses on Internet lockdown on an endpoint level through tethered appliances. This emphasize is dead-on as indicated not just by invasive measures such as Amazon’s remote erasure of e-books from the Kindle, but also by Google’s moves promoting an open Internet environment by offering products such as the Android operating system and the just recently released unlocked Nexus One smartphone.

While having commercial implications for publishers in the back of my mind, I will focus on reviewing the first part of the book where Zittrain illustrates actual developments of the Internet, and I will neglect the second part where he is rather looking for solutions of issues broached from a lawyer’s angle. Although Apple’s App Store (launched shortly after the book was published) finds its mention in Zittrain’s preface, I will bring it to bear further along the road.

Two Battles

By diving into the history of the Internet, Zittrain in an intriguing way describes two parallel battles: the advance of PCs outpacing appliancized machines such as dedicated word-processors, and the replacement of proprietary networks such as CompuServe by the Internet. First, in contrast to appliances which are sealed when they leave the factory, PCs can be repurposed as they support a variety of programs from a variety of makers. This model, having ever new code running on the computers, was appealing commercially for hardware and OS makers selling the platform as well as for third-party developers.

Secondly, Zittrain describes the first online services which gave their subscribers access to content and services deployed solely by the network providers. Beyond this AT&T, the largest carrier in the US, controlled not only the network itself but even the devices attached. After the FCC prohibited AT&T’s restrictions of competitive devices, the epochal change took off with the advance of the modem which connected computers to networks. Most of the networks though have been centrally controlled and all have been proprietary. The network provider’s business model basically was charging subscribers hourly rates for using content and services strung to their network. Contrarily the Internet was built as a decentralized network with focus on simplicity and compatibility. Content and services have not been bundled to the network.

Eventually, Zittrain writes, “Just as the general-purpose PC beat leased and appliancized counterparts that could perform only their manufacturers’ applications and nothing else, the Internet first linked to and than functionally replaced a host of proprietary consumer network services.“

Generativity

Both battles determined the potential for innovation as well as the grade of generativity of the overall digital information infrastructure. Zittrain defines generativity as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences” and he points out five principal factors that make a system or technology generative. First, “leverage” describes how extensively a system leverages a set of possible tasks. The “more a system can do, the more capable it is of producing change.” Second, “adaptability refers to how easily the system can be built on or modified to broaden its range of use”. Third, the “ease of mastery reflects how easy it is for broad audiences to understand how to adopt and adapt it. (…) The more useful a technology is both to the neophyte and to the expert, the more generative it is.” Another factor is “accessibility”. The easier it is to obtain access to a technology, (…) the more generative it is.” And finally “transferability indicates how easily changes in the technology can be conveyed to others.”

The Onslaught

But the generative Internet and reprogrammable PCs are by far not the upshot. CompuServe and word processors just seemed to be the evolutionary dead end but in fact are not dead at all. They “have been only sleeping.” Zittrain continues explaining the impropriety of the Internet’s initial purpose and its current use. Because the Internet was build with a trust-your-neighbour approach and without any reliable structure to manage personal identity, it was open not only to content and innovative services and software, but to dangerous code as well. Within proprietary networks feature rollouts are performed only by the administrators and users and programmers are separated – unlike within the Internet, where literally anybody could offer and install software. Starting with hacks in a small rather friendly competitive community, bad code over the years became increasingly elaborated and rampant. Ethics changed with scale and eventually programming malicious software even got a viable business model – with staggering consequences.

Botnets are used to send ever-improving spam messages and to target certain websites to blackmail the site owners. Zittrain writes: “The going rate for a botnet to launch such an attack is reputed to be about $50000 per day”. With one out of 10 home computers being contributing to botnets such “zombie computers were responsible for more than 80% of the world’s spam in June 2006, and spam in turn accounted an estimated 80% of the world’s total e-mail.” Accordingly he refers to security experts such as Eugene Kaspersky who says that antivirus vendors “may not be able to withstand the onslaught.”

Tethered Appliances

Zittrain continues to argue that as a result “consumers find themselves frustrated about PCs at a time when a variety of information appliances are arising as substitutes for the activities they value most such as browsing the World Wide Web and watching videos.” Because mobile phones, game consoles and e-book readers are controlled by their makers and their design often anticipates uses and abuses, they can be saver and more effective. Eventually consumers will abandon PCs in favour for these non-generative devices and services. Sterile “tethered appliances” come into dominance.

Conditioned Access

Thereby the user’s Internet access is compromised in many ways. For example mobile phones’ Internet “access is channelled through browsers provided and controlled by the phone service vendors. (…) Carriers have forced telephone providers to limit the mobile phones’ Web browsers to certain carrier-approved sites.” Further, software makers can not have their code run on the devices without deals, while even simply “surfing the World Wide Web often entails accepting and running new code. The Web was designed to seamlessly integrate material from disparate sources (…) not only through hyperlinks (…) but through placeholders that incorporate data and code from elsewhere into the original page.” Zittrain recalls the fact that these Web protocols have spawned the massive advertising industry that powers companies like Google. Also he notes that Skype has petitioned the FCC that customers can select whatever software and device they want to use on a network – much like what Google is aiming for with the Nexus One.

Enforcement

Zittrain refers to Lawrence Lessig and Joel Reidenberg and underpins the proposition, that code could be law. Preventing an e-book from being printed is a code based enforcement mechanism. And so is the practise that “devices, like the iPhone, are updated in ways that actively seek out and erase any user modification. (…) Appliances become contingent: rented instead of owned, even if one pays up front for them, since they are subject to instantaneous revision. (…) Those who control the tethered appliances can control the behaviour undertaken with the device in a number of ways: pre-emption, specific injunction, and surveillance.” Pre-emption refers for example to the numerous DRM-restrictions such as permitting printing an e-book file. Specific injunction can be deletion of particular content from recorded program on a DVR (or from an e-book reader). This kind of “tailoring also could be user-specific”. Finally, surveillance includes recording transactions and browsing behaviour.

Considering the harsh debates and court cases about so called piracy and file-sharing it is worth emphasizing Zittrain’s argument that comprehensive regulatory crackdowns require either influence over the individual user or non-generative endpoints. Just as long as any sort of basic Internet access remains, you find a way around network blocks.

SaaS and Web 2.0

Due to software as a service (SaaS) models and migration of applications away from our own devices to the “cloud”, the extent of control via tethered appliances becomes even more prevalent.

App Store Model

Zittrain also explains that generative and non-generative models are not mutually exclusive and can be intertwined within a single system. He does not explicitly refer to app stores as being such an in-between but notes in regard to Apple’s App Store that “there is another model for lockdown that is much more subtle. (…) These technologies let “outsiders build upon them just as they could with PCs, but in a controlled and contingent way. This is iPhone 2.0 (…) with a driving market for software (…) that must be approved by and funnelled through Apple.”

Network and API Neutrality

The Internet’s design is intended to allow all data to be treated in the same way. Coevally there is no guarantee for transmission speed and bandwidth which constantly evokes debates about network neutrality. Network operators want to compromise the non-discrimination principal with network-screening, deep packet inspection (DPI) and other so called network management and quality of service (QoS) measures. “For example, an ISP might block Skype in order to compel the ISP’s users to subscribe to its own Internet telephony offering” (see link to petition above). Zittrain is going so far to “imagine ISPs then offering free internet access to their customers, with that access paid for by content providers like Google that want to reach those costumers.”

Having said this, he also points out: “If their is a present worldwide threat to neutrality in the movement of bits, it comes not from restrictions of traditional Internet access that can be evaded using generative PCs, but from enhancements to traditional and emerging appliancized services that are not open to third-party tinkering.” Zittrain calls for shifting focus from network neutrality to “API neutrality”.

Opportunity to be Controlled

Furthermore one can assume, while the challenges to network neutrality coming from network providers are explicitly a matter of authorities’ regulation on a national and international level, the limitations of individual Internet access on a level of endpoints is rather a result of supposedly free choice by consumers and thus can not be influenced on a regulatory level. Zittrain names it people’s “opportunity to respond to these problems by moving away from the PC toward more centrally controlled – “tethered” – information appliances like mobile phones”.

Publisher’s Premise

The changes described and anticipated by Zittrain obviously have massive impact on content companies such as publishers as well. “The Internet security problem is only one item within a basket of conflicts whose balance is greatly affected by the rise of the generative Internet. Some entrepreneurs who have benefited from the disruption of the late 1990s naturally wish to close the door behind them—enjoying the fruits of the generative grid while denying them to the next round of innovators. First among the injured are the publishing industries whose intellectual property’s value is premised on maintaining scarcity, if not fine-grained control, over the creative works in which they have been granted some exclusive rights.” Zittrain also points out that the creative commons (CC) licensing model is a boon for content level generativity and as a result of the uncompromised Internet the generative proliferation of content (for Wikipedia for example) bypassed the slow-to-change walled garden content.

Conclusion

In case of the pre-Internet proprietary networks which “were outbeating the bushes for content, arranging to provide it through the straight forward economic model of being paid by people who would spend connect time browsing it”, Zittrain suggests that the network providers’ “natural desire to act as gatekeepers” and to cut individual deals for revenue sharing with content providers have been reasons for eventually having been outpaced by the generative Internet.

Considering the changed IT-security situation today, where in fact convenient access without hassle could become a new scarcity, control – not over creative works themselves, but over dedicated points to access them – can be seen as not imposed and incapacitating, but rather as a useful and transparent offering. It is worth wondering whether acting as a gatekeeper and bundling content – not on a network level but on the level of endpoints – would more likely be a realistic and seminal way to go than another dead end as often anticipated with levity. To which extent these options can be a prospect of success for publishers being in coopetition with a whole host of new potent intermediaries remains to be seen.

[1] Jonathan Zittrain, The future of the Internet and how to stop it (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008).

Update: Checking a quotation, I bumped into the amazing interactive book project of The Institute for the Future of the Book linked now above and meant to engage with Zittrain’s text. In one of the paragraph-specific comments I found the recommendation to watch “The System of Ownership of Ideas” parts 1, 2, and 3.  It’s a profound speech by professor of law and legal history at Columbia University and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, Eben Moglen, who states for example: “The welfare law of the 20th century was the creators deprived of the opportunity to create by the oligopolistic need to reduce output to raise price.” He also argues: Because there is no consistency between the guarantee of fundamental human rights and the system of the ownerships of ideas, we will eliminate the law of intellectual property – by eliminating distributors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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One thought on “Review: The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It

  1. Pingback: Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets » Review of Telecommunications Policy in Transition

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