A Portrait of the Internet as a Young Man
28 Pages Posted: 13 May 2010
Date Written: April 1, 2010
In brief, the core theory of Jonathan Zittrain’s1 2008 book The Future of the Internet - and How to Stop It is this: good laws, norms, and code are needed to regulate the Internet, to prevent bad laws, norms, and code from compromising its creative capabilities and fettering its fecund flexibility. A far snarkier if less alliterative summary would be “We have to regulate the Internet to preserve its open, unregulated nature.”
Zittrain posits that either a substantive series of unfortunate Internet events or one catastrophic one will motivate governments to try to regulate cyberspace in a way that promotes maximum stability, which will inhibit or possibly even preclude future technological innovations that rely on open access to the tools and systems that comprise the Internet. To head this off, he calls for a “transition to a networking infrastructure that is more secure yet roughly as dynamic as the current one,” which will be achieved by collaborative efforts, “a 21st century international Manhattan Project which brings together people of good faith in government, academia, and the private sector for the purpose of shoring up the miraculous information technology grid that is too easy to take for granted and whose seeming self-maintenance has led us into an undue complacence.” Zittrain uses brief, informal accounts of past events to build two main theories that dominate the book. First, he claims that open access, which he calls generativity, is under threat by a trend toward closure, which he refers to as tetheredness, which is counterproductively favored by proprietary entities. Though consumers prefer openness and the autonomy it confers, few take advantage of the opportunities it provides, and therefore undervalue it and too readily cede it in favor of the promise of security that tetheredness brings. Second, he argues that if the Internet is to find salvation it will be by the grace of “true netizens,” volunteers acting collectively in good faith to cultivate positive social norms online.
Zittrain is a creative thinker and entertaining speaker, and his book is engaging and informative in much the same ways that his talks are, loaded with pop culture references and allegorical tales about technology and the once and future Internet. Zittrain uses numerous anecdotes to support his dual hypotheses, exhaustively affirming that open innovative tools and systems are essential for online life to flourish, and his contention that the Internet is exceedingly vulnerable to bad actors (a proposition I have never seen another cyberlaw scholar seriously question). But he isn’t very clear about the specific attributes of laws or regulations that could effectively foster enhanced security without impairing dynamism. He also seems to have a discomfitingly elitist view about who should be making policy decisions about the Internet’s future: like-minded, self-appointed, and knowledgeable volunteers with the time, interest, and expertise to successfully maneuver sectors of the Internet into the form or direction he thinks best.
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