Page last updated at 14:29 GMT, Thursday, 24 April 2008 15:29 UK

Stark warning for internet's future

By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Professor Jonathan Zittrain Photo credit: Joi Ito
Professor Jonathan Zittrain Photo credit: Joi Ito
With the second billion of the planet's citizens due to go online in the next 10 years and an avalanche of online-enabled devices hitting the market with each passing year it would be understandable to assume that the internet is in a healthy position.

The 1960s vision of a network of networks has grown into a tool that encircles the globe, drives economies and connects citizens.

But Professor Jonathan Zittrain, one of the world's leading academics on the impact of the net, is warning that the future is potentially bleak.

His book, The Future of the Internet: And How To Stop It, highlights key concerns about the direction online society is heading in.

"I want a recognition from people that the network they enjoy now is in many important respects a collective hallucination," he said.

"If too many of them start treating it as a cash and carry service they are going get the network they deserve."

Zittrain is the professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University and co-founder of Harvard Law School's Berman Center for Internet and Society.

He said the "happy accident" of the net, which was designed by researchers for researchers, resulted in an open platform which facilitated innovation because it enabled anyone online to implement ideas at the edge of the network.

He calls these technologies "generative", meaning open tools that can be put to a multiplicity of purposes.

Fundamental backbone

A PC is a good example of a generative device because it can be reprogrammed for many uses, and one machine on the net can impact every other without compromising the fundamental backbone of the network.

He contrasts generative devices with "sterile appliances", closed systems which appear to give consumers access to the net.

He argued such devices were damaging innovation and potentially putting easilly-abused powers into the hands of a few companies and governments.

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"Consumers are eagerly asking for technologies, which can be used to surveil or control them," said professor Zittrain.

He said he was concerned that users who wanted basic access to the web were driving the adoption of closed systems.

"My concern is that those are the sorts of people who may well find themselves perfectly willing to live with a browser - and as long as they or their device gives them a browser, as far as they are concerned they are successfully on the internet.

"That move to do everything online accelerates the move to have appliances because there's no need to have a general purpose reprogrammable machine in your house."

Games consoles, web-enabled kiosks, set-top boxes, and mobile phones were all offering access to the net, but the terms for such access were being dictated by manufacturers and content providers, argued the academic.

The closed nature of these devices gave them a stability and consistancy that the open net often failed to deliver, he argued. But there was a price to be for using these "very useful, wonderful things", he said.

'Roving bug'

He cited the example of the OnStar car tracking system, designed to help US motorists navigate and get automatic help if needed.

"In the US the FBI required that one of the companies that offered this system reprogram it so they could monitor people they were interested in.

"From the FBI's point of view it's just a roving bug. But you start to realise the change in the ability of somebody to monitor you."

On the open net, using a generative machine like a PC, consumers were better protected from such abuses, he said.

"A generative machine on the neutral net is a participant in a cat and mouse game. The way the internet was designed was not to care about identity."

The way the internet was designed was not to care about identity
Jonathan Zittrain

Professor Zittrain said he was concerned about web application development.

"As we move to the cloud computing model and as software programmers move from programming for Windows or Mac to Facebook apps or the Google apps platform, all of the qualities of the [sterile] appliance start to manifest again and that becomes a concern."

Professor Zittrain said developers were writing applications to run on proprietorial networks like Facebook and Google without checking the fine print.

"I would like to see software developers, the ones who are whimsical and nerdy and code because it's fun, read the fine print.

"They need to be more demanding with the platform developer to say, 'We're not going to code for any platform that could kill our app at any time'.

Fundamental weakness

"Frankly, I think platform makers would love to be thrown into that bush and love to be pressured to change their platform.

"So when government comes along and says 'We think this application infringes copyright; please kill it', they then will be able to say 'Gee, we wish we could but we can't because it's on the open net'."

In the book professor Zittrain makes clear that the open generative net is not all positive and has a fundamental weakness: it is open to malign exploitation.

I am not convinced there will be some watershed moment that will read like the script to an action movie where net is broken one morning
Jonathan Zittrain

"I wouldn't say I am very concerned or confident that there will be a major disaster event on the internet as we know it," he said.

But he said viruses, malware and spyware were threatening to overwhelm the online experience for ordinary users.

And he warned that the innovation and genius needed to battle such threats were being eroded by the rise of closed systems.

"The point of the book is that there ought not to be a dichotomy between either generative or sterile systems.

"The blend will never be 100% and 0%, nor should it be, but to me such a wonderful historical accident should be maintained by a critical mass of generative machines."

He argued that ordinary users and expert technologists could work together, using the power of the open net, to solve these problems.

"Having people devote just a little bit of bandwidth and processing cycles, even if they are not experts, then their computer becomes part of a global vital signs chart of the internet.

"It allows us to use the generative net to give diagnostics of itself and ultimately fix itself when it goes awry."

And that was the ultimate use of a generative net, he said.

Action urged to keep net neutral
18 Apr 08 |  Technology
How the open net closed its doors
25 Mar 08 |  Technology

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