Zittrain and the future of the Internet

It’s not often you start the day by kicking a dog full in the face. Actually I didn’t do it, but I did get closer than I ever thought possible to mangling a mutt’s features. I was on my morning jog and this little but sturdy beast broke away from its owners and started chasing around my feet. This happens all the time, except this time it bit me, hard, on the ankle. I kept jogging, and then it bit me hard again on the same ankle. Aside from this being quite a feat of co-ordination as I was running at a good pace, it bloody hurt. So I stopped, and turned on it with every intention of dishing some punishment back.

Alot of people are scared of dogs, but I learnt as a kid to stand up to them. It was the only way to deal with the ENORMOUS dog at a friend’s house who saw me as an invader. When it physically attacked me – which it did continuously every time I was there – my friend’s parents would make a variety of idiotic comments like “he’s just having fun”; “he doesn’t mean any harm”; “that’s how he shows he likes you”, despite the fact I was usually sprawled out on the floor and clearly quite scared. When it became clear that I had no choice but to sort this out myself, the dog and I had a little tete-a-tete in the garden one day that had the fortuitous result that it subsequently became passive around me.

So when this little git of a dog tore through my trousers, and my sock, and drew blood, my immediate feeling was that it might benefit from a hefty kick in the chops. But I didn’t do it. Why? Because of societal values. The idiot owners shouted a half-hearted apology and then tried to beckon the dog with cooing, play noises – which the dog completely ignored. If they had barked “Roger!”, it would have stopped, and most likely never bitten me in the first place. But because there were owners there, because they had at least half-apologised and because they appeared to be doing something about the situation, no matter how half-arsed, I decided not to act but to simply stare at the dog until it listened to its owners and ran off again. I acted against my own desires because of a sense of wider societal good (not upsetting neighbours), despite my aching foot.

And it is for this reason that I’m not sure about one of the threads of logic outlined by top Net academic Jonathan Zittrain in a lecture he gave yesterday in Oxford on “The Future of the Internet”.


I’m a big fan of Mr Zittrain, even though we frequently disagree, particularly about ICANN. He has the kind of academic mind that I like – unafraid to be almost journalistic in following what is happening but always with an eye on history and parallels. He also comes from the Lessig school of thinking into the future, trying to discover where we are likely to end up in order to point out what issues we need to tackle now. He also has a very engaging approach and friendly style of delivery. As we speak, Jonathan is working on what I’m sure he hopes will be a seminal text called, yes, The Future of the Internet, and this lecture series is both an outline and a testing ground for that book’s central arguments and theses as he works through them.

The lecture yesterday was the second of three this term (I missed half of the first one because I was flying back from the IGF meeting in Geneva), and it was titled “Net Security, Tethered Appliances and Regulation”. In essence – and you will have to buy the book if you want the real argument (no release date yet) – Zittrain argued that the future of how we approach the Internet will be through a series of “tethered devices” – that is, things like iPods, Sky+ boxes and so on where it is the manufacturer that decides what happens within that box and you, well, you buy the device because you want what it offers.

And the reason we will all sign up to these restrictive devices is, simply, security. The Internet as it is, is a bit like a bee – it shouldn’t work in the same way that a bee shouldn’t really be able to fly. Zittrain gave a variety of examples over how the security of the Internet and people using the network is becoming critical – the enormous increase in security alerts for software, phishing scams, fake emails, spam. “Just telling people ‘be careful out there’ is no longer enough,” he argued.

He also points out that the much-heralded “Next Generation Networks” – something that the ITU is very serious about – are effectively exactly the same as the Internet but with two additions: they will offer end-to-end services; and they will be compliant with regulatory requirements. NGN is a redesign of the network “now that we know what we want to do with it”, is Zittrain’s point. And then he went on a tour of the early tabulating computers from which IBM stemmed and where customers hired the machines on a monthly basis, with IBM left to run it and to produce the programs that would work on it. The PC revolution that saw everyone able to download and install software from third parties blew that model out of the water but with the Internet we have now reached a very dangerous position where that software can be downloaded across the same network you use for communication.

Cap N Crunch

And this I think is Zittrain’s most interesting and persuasive argument: the same channels that carry data should not also carry code.

He demonstrated this by firing up Skype on his laptop and showing that his computer had started communicating with seemingly random people all over the Net – someone in Belgium one second; someone in the US the next. This system of allowing people total access over your machine for the usefulness of a program was a disaster just waiting to happen. These programs have “the keys to the kingdom”. And he’s right, they do. At some point something is going to come along that makes people question this very model. Imagine for example if someone hacked Microsoft’s Automatic Updates service and installed a virus or Trojan – you could kill half the world’s computers in a day (this is my example btw). Is saying “well, it’s unlikely to happen” really enough?

And he gives the example of the Cap N Crunch whistle – a famous example in the computing world – where a toy in a book of kids’ cereal enabled people to make free phonecalls on AT&T’s networks. How? Because AT&T allowed code (i.e. a program or a system change) to run over the same network it ran communcations. Wikipedia, as ever, has a good article on this and the bloke, John Draper, who discovered it. The phone company had to change its system to make it more secure.

Zittrain sums all this up by suggesting the era of the .exe – the executable file that you run on your computer – could well be seen in future as a period of mild craziness. “We are skating so close to the edge right now, it’s incredible,” he argued. And the solution? Tethered appliances. The safe Internet in a box. Someone else does the programming for you.

Be nice

And it is very persuasive except for the fact that the Internet as it is is more than just a network, it has brought with it an eye-opening philosophy. People have been empowered like never before by the Internet and with it has come a culture of being allowed to do what you want, of being able to stick what you want out there and see if people lap it up.

Zittrain points out, quite correctly, that an underlying assumption of the Internet when it was built was that “people are reasonable and nice”, but if you look around the Net you will find that people are not always nice, and not always reasonable. Vint Cerf put it rather brilliantly this week in India when he said: “The Internet is a mirror. If you don’t like what you see, fix the person, don’t fix the mirror!” I suspect Zittrain would argue that tethered devices are not so much fixing the mirror as bringing it inside your house where you get to see what is reflected in it – your possessions, your face, your revoltingly coloured carpet.

But I think Zittrain may be under-estimating the ability of people to act against their own interests and desires. For the same reason I haven’t got matted dog fur on my trainers, people may continue to put up with – even fight – for their right to run an unnecessarily insecure, even dangerous, system because of the societal norms and the culture that the Internet has drawn up. The dog’s owners apologised (slightly) and tried (slightly) to fix the problem and, rather oddly, that was enough for me.

Even as I write this though the “over optimistic” alarm in my head has gone off. There are larger forces at work here: the sense of insecurity that terrorism has put in people’s brains; the rise and rise of patents and lawsuits and corporate power; the failure of people to overcome nationalist sentiment when there is an information network that makes country boundaries less important.

I would surmise that whether we see the end of the .exe and the rise of tethered devices depends on the clash of cultures: corporate capitalism and the persuasive power of advertising, against the independent sense of excitement that every individual has felt at some point while on the Internet that there is something much bigger going on than YouTube or Skype or Wikipedia. Can people be persuaded enough to take against their own experiences? Most definitely with the right amount of propaganda (advertising). But will that sense of excitement that has made the Net take off in unimaginable ways provide enough impetus for people to develop systems that make the tethered device and the secure Internet, well, just not that appealing? We shall see.


You can follow Jonathan Zittrain on his blog at jz.org and his lecture series at the Oxford Internet Institute is covered here. There is one remaining, next week, Wednesday 28 Feb, at 3pm. They are open to the public. (I also won’t be able to attend the last lecture unfortunately. I may ask Jonathan Zittrain to record it.)

  1. Hi. I liked that saying about the mirror đŸ™‚
    Ayway, I am Javier, the founder of Trendirama.com, a community of online amateur writers. We write about the future of everything. I would like to invite you guys to write an article on the Trendirama.com website, perhaps based on what you mentioned here. Maybe you can write “The future of the internet” there? It is up to you, you choose the subject.
    You would get a link back when you link to your own article, if you wish.
    You can even re-use some of what you’ve written here, in the last part of the article, “your view and comments”. That would save you time and still be interesting for readers.
    DonĂ¢â‚¬â„¢t underestimate this opportunity!
    Look forward to hearing from you

    Best regards
    Javier Marti

Comments are closed.