The Future of the Internet (and how to stop it) Jonathan Zittrain

Review by Tony Fish, 2008

The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain, cyberlaw Professor at Oxford is a difficult book to read and not for the faith hearted, on the same lines as ‘The wealth of Networks’ by Yochai Benkler. Personally, a very well written book and as with other books written by top rating academics, every sentence is well balanced and has a thought linked to it.  This is no speed read. However, overall the book left me rather numb, as it is a heavy read, and there is not one single impression you walk away with.  The best one liner summary I can give is “leave the internet alone and it will continue to develop faster than those trying to stop it.”

Zittrain develops an argument to protect the “generativity” of the Internet but warns of its own powers and the anxieties of regulators to step in, believing they have seen it all before.

The book has three parts. The first part is a historically-motivated discussion of generativity. The second part develops the ideas of generativity. The third part is Zittrain’s own opinions on cyberlaw based on part 1 and 2.

From my perspective I had the following thoughts as I read the text:-

  • News is never complete.  News is only news because it is new.  The focus of the book is about generativity.   This theory is based on something always being new, most at the generation of the users.  However, new does not necessarily mean new.  This blog is new, but there are already lots of very good reviews.  Even this review will not complete the story.  Generativity assume unstable and new, is human culture unstable and new, are they mutually exclusive?
  • Picture vs Image. This is the difference between the exact fact and the overall impression.  A picture has colour and depth and can provide lots of detail, depending on the focus. An image is like a poor quality black and white picture held at arms length in poor light.  There are topics Zittrain loves and has some of the best pictures in the gallery, others especially mobile, reputation, metadata and content where Zittrain prefers the Image as it can be tethered to his story.
  • “shadow IT”  The issue that a corporate faces.  Corporate IT likes the tethered control, so the users bypass the solution with their own IT.  This was not explored – shame.
  • Where is the edge of the network. This is a critical issues, and is never even mentioned.
  • Mobile and the implications of always on (collecting data).  This is my favourite topic “mobile Web 2.0”.  Whilst I do see Web 2.0 as read/write there is as aspect of mobile that provides the tags’ (attention, location, time, who) to the write.  This metadata I would agree is where the next battle is and much of this book focuses on the read/write aspects of content only.  However, his one comment about ownership of this data is the users, suggest to me that there could be more coming.

However like big brother – here are my best bits….




The value is derived from steeling people’s attention


Another fundamental assumption, reflected repeatedly in various Internet design decision that tilted towards simplicity, is about trust


Hacking a machine to steal and exploit any personal data within is currently labour-intensive; credit card numbers can be found more easily ….


Consumers will increasingly abandon the PC from these alternatives, or they will demand that the PC itself be appliances


Next-generation video game consoles are not the only appliances vying for a chunk of the PC domain. With a handful of exceptions, mobile phones are in the same category.


Problems with generative PC platforms can this propel people away from PC’s and toward information appliances controlled by their makers. Eliminate the PC from many dens and living rooms, and we eliminate the test best and distribution pint of new, useful software from any corner of the globe.

Recall the fundamental difference between a PC and an information appliance; the PC can run code from anywhere, written by anyone, while the information appliance remains tethered to it maker’s desires, offering a more consistent and focussed user experience at the expense of flexibility and innovation.


Good summary remarks


Much of the book’s argument rests on the notion of generativity, which is defined as: …a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.

The Internet, PC and Facebook are generative,. The iPhone, TiVo and SaaS-based Web 2.0 sites are not.


What makes something Generative? There are five principal factors at work: (1) how extensively a system or technology leverages a set of possible tasks; (2) how well it can be adapted to a range of tasks; (3) how easily new contributors can maser it; (4) how accessible it is to those ready and able to build on it; and (5) how transferable any change are to others – including (and perhaps especially) non-experts.


Free software satisfies Richards Stallmans benchmark “four freedoms”; freedom to run the program, freedom to study how it works, freedom to change it, and freedom to share the results with the public at large


Tim Wu has shown that when wireless telephone carriers exercise control over the endpoint mobile phones that their subscribers may use, those phones will have undesirable features and they are not easy fro third parties to improve


.. that in order for large organisations to become more innovative, they must adopt a more “ambidextrous organisation form” to provide a buffer between exploitation and exploration.


Generativity , then, is a parent of invention, and an open network connecting generative devices makes the fruits of invention easy to share if the inventor is so inclined.


First among the injured are the publishing industries who IP value is premised on maintaining scarcity, if not fine-grained control, over the creative working in which they have been granted some exclusive rights.


For others, the impact of a generative system may not be just a fight between the upstarts and incumbents, but a struggle between control and anarchy


One holder of a mobile phone camera can irrevocably compromise someone else’s privacy.


A failure solve generative problems at the technical layer will result in outcomes that allow for unwanted control at the content and social layers


People now have the opportunity to respond to these problems by moving away from the PC and toward more centrally controlled –tethered” – information appliances like mobile phones, video games consoles, TiVos, ipods, iPhones and Blackberries.


…even if they realise that a more reliable system would inevitably be less functional.

A shift to tethered appliances and locked-down PC’s will have a ripple effect on long-standing cyber law problems. Many of which are tugs-of-wars between individuals with a real or perceived injury from online activity and those who wish to operate as freely as possible in cyberspace.


They are tethered because it is easy for their vendors to change them from afar, long after the devices have left the warehouses and showrooms.

These tethered appliances receive remote updates from the manufacturer, but they generally are not configured to allow anyone else to tinker with them – to invent new features and distribute them to other owners who would not know how to program the boxes themselves.


Applications become contingent: rented instead of owned, even if one pays up from for them, since they are subject to instantaneous revision.


Tethered appliances have the capacity to relay information about their uses back to the manufacturer.


“a grid of 400 million open PC’s is not less generative than a grid of 400 million open PCs and 500 million locked-down TiVos. Users might shift some of their activities to tethered appliance in response to the security threats.


It is a mistake to think of the web browser as the apex of the PC’s evolution, especially as new peer-to-peer applications show that the PCs can be used to ease network traffic congestion and to allow people directly to interact in new ways.

The law of 1 vs the law of many, security vs freedom


A larger lesson has to do with the traffic expert’s claim about law and human behaviour: the more we are regulated, the more was may choose to hew only and exactly to the regulation or, more precisely, to what we can get away with when the regulation is not perfectly enforced…. This observation is less about the difference between rules and standards than it is abut the source of mandates; some may come from a process that a person views as alien, while other arise from a process in which the person takes an active part.


Postel’s Law a rule f thumb written by one of the internet’s founders to describe a philosophy of Internet protocol development: “be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.”


Wikipedia shows, if perhaps only for a fleeting moment under particularly fortuitous circumstances, that the inverse is also true; the fewer the number of prescription, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility escalates


This is easier said than done, because our familiar toolkits for handling problems are not particularly attuned to maintaining generativity.


Recall that the IETF’s report acknowledged the incident’s seriousness and sought to forestall future viruses not though better engineering but by recommending better community ethics and policing.


And with only a handful of networks that people watched in prime time, the definitions of what was worthy of prime time ended up a devastatingly rough aggregation of preferences


In an effort to satisfy the desire for safety with full lockdown, PC’s could be designed to pretend to be more than one machine, capable of cycling from one split personality to the next.


There could be a spectrum of virtual PC’s on one unit


So why not place legal blame one each product maker and let them sort it out?


To the extent that PC OSes do control what programs can run on them, the law should hold OS developers responsible for problems that arise, just as TiVo and mobile phone manufacturers take responsibility for issues that arise with their controlled technologies.