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Commentary

A Bleak Vision For Orwell's Internet

The new book by Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, a technology thinker and provocateur, lays out a stark, Orwellian vision for the next phase of online development.
The new book by Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, a technology thinker and provocateur, lays out a stark, Orwellian vision for the next phase of online development.The Future Of The Internet -- And How To Stop It argues that the free-for-all "generative" era of online computing is being overtaken by an age of "sterile" "information appliances" that are tethered to proprietary platforms and vendors. His prime examples are the iPhone and cloud computing platforms like Google and Facebook.

"As ubiquitous as Internet technologies are today, the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution," Zittrain writes. Fueling this shift is the rise of viruses, spam, phishing schemes, and other malware that is causing less tech-savvy users to prefer "tethered" systems to ones that are completely open to the chaos of the free and rich Internet. It's sort of like the shift from lawless frontier towns in the early American West to the advent of sheriffs, marshals, and other forms of control: You stand less of a chance of getting shot, but the nightlife's not as exciting.

"Today, the same qualities that led to [the success of the Internet and general-purpose PCs] are causing [them] to falter," continues Zittrain. "A seductive and more powerful generation of proprietary networks and information appliances is waiting for round two."

It's an important and interesting thesis, but I think it's misguided on two counts.

No. 1, Zittrain misses the movement toward openness that is suffusing not only new mobile devices, like Nokia's future open source handsets running the Symbian operating systems, but cloud platforms like Google's App Engine, which allows developers to create new applications based on the Python programming language. Even the iPhone from Apple, a company that has based its business model on tethered systems, is now moving toward an open software development kit. I spent two days last week listening to product managers at Google talk about their commitment to an open, innovative, "generative" cloud model. Either they are accomplished liars or Zittrain has it wrong.

No. 2, the movement toward the cloud for many basic computing functions that previously resided on the PC is not in itself a "sterilizing" transformation. In a review of The Future Of The Internet on Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer puts it well: Zittrain "creates a false choice of possible futures from which we must choose. What I mean by false choice is that Jonathan doesn't seem to believe a hybrid future is possible or desirable. I see no reason why we can't have the best of both worlds -- a world full of plenty of tethered appliances, but also plenty of generativity and openness."

Appealing to users who are less expert in programming and Web protocols than the early adopters of 15 years ago, "Hybrid solutions . . . offer creative opportunities within certain confines in an attempt to balance openness and stability."

I think Zittrain is on to something, and his portrait of a possibly controlled future is worth examining in order to forestall it. But I'm not shutting down my Internet connection just yet.

Editor's Choice
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
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John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing