[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website]
Jonathan Zittrain’s recent book, The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It, has spurred a lot of discussion both online and offline, with blog posts lauding his insights or criticising his over-apocalyptic imagination.
The book itself makes fascinating reading for those who have watched the network grow from its roots in the research community into today’s global channel for communications, commerce and cultural expression.
And the distinction that Zittrain makes between computers and devices that are open for hacking, exploration and creative use and those which are locked down and limited is one that we can clearly see.
An iPhone and an Asus Eee PC are very different objects, and I can’t imagine anyone scrawling ‘this machine kills fascists’ on their iPhone in homage to Woody Guthrie, while my son has just done this to his Asus.
One of the reasons that Zittrain puts forward for the growing popularity of closed or, as he prefers ‘tethered’, devices, is that they are less vulnerable to hacking, security flaws, malware and all the other perils that face any internet-enabled system.
But he sees great dangers in allowing the creative potential of our computers to be limited by the need to register programs with companies like Apple, or have Microsoft’s approval before your software will run on Windows.
And because he’s from the United States, he doesn’t believe that the government or a regulatory framework can solve the problem.
Instead he calls on the internet-using community to come together to solve the serious problems that face us, and offers his own suggestions as to where some of that effort might go.
One of his more interesting suggestions is that our PCs and laptops should have two operating modes: red and green. In the green zone the system is locked down, only approved programs can run, only demonstrably safe traffic is sent and received, and safety is as assured as it can be.
The red zone is more like today’s network, where you can download and run pretty much any software you like, but you run the risk that the movie file you found on BitTorrent is actually carrying a nasty little virus.
Users could then decide whether they want to work in the safe zone or go out onto the wider network. And, crucially, the red zone would have a ’restore’ button that would wipe anything bad and return you to its initial state so you could recover from any infection.
It’s a nice idea, and I think a lot of home users would choose a safer, if more limited, online experience.
But unlike Zittrain I think that regulation can help, and that putting control in the hands of democratically elected governments is far better than putting it in the hands of corporations.
He wants the network’s users to solve the problems, but a community on its own is far less effective than one backed by the rule of law, as eBay clearly demonstrates. It can only operate as it does because contract law and financial regulation provide a way for the community to enforce its decisions against members, and this is true for other online services.
However not all governments are good; not all governments are wise and sensible; and not all governments listen to reason.
It is therefore necessary to ensure that, whatever the architectures of control on tomorrow’s network, there is space for subversion, for activism, for stuff that is not approved, not countenanced by the state, not strictly legal.
And even if we accept that trusted systems will define the online experience for most people, most of the time – and that they will accept and even benefit from that – there needs to be more.
Perhaps we should extend Zittrain’s idea beyond the computer and onto the network itself, and offer two separate logical networks, operating over the same physical connections. One would be the safe world of electronic toll roads, the other a collection of dark and dangerous back alleys.
It would not be hard to build such a system. Many of us already use what is called ‘virtualisation’ technology to run different operating systems at the same time, like the Mac users who also have Windows on their computer.
We could have a special virtual operating system for the uncontrolled internet, and anyone who wanted to use it would simply have to run it.
Of course things are not yet as bad as Zittrain seems to claim, and though I don’t often agree with noted free market advocate and libertarian Adam Thierer, his his critical review on the Progress and Freedom Foundation blog is well-argued and often insightful.
As he notes, he can ‘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.’
But the desire to have a safe space online is growing stronger, and the pressure to lock down large swathes of the online world in order to make the network safe for the vulnerable will not go away.
We’ve seen it just this week with Facebook announcing that it will attempt to block access to its service to people convicted of ‘sex offences’ in the US, even though many of them will be guilty of nothing more than consensual sexual activity with other adults in public places.
But because the effort of checking whether someone was convicted – and not merely cautioned – for an offence which involved children is too great tens of thousands of people will be blocked from accessing the service.
Perhaps having a place where no such unreasonable and arbitrary distinctions exist is a good reason to start working on an alternative network.