The Future of the Internet - and How to Stop It: Book review

If we want the internet to stay open and free, we need users to be as active and engaged as in the early days, rather than passive consumers, says Jonathan Zittrain.

It was the best of decisions, it was the worst of decisions: the internet's founders made the network open. Security experts wouldn't have done it — they'd have added encryption and required authentication before anyone could play. And the internet would now probably be much smaller. Tim Berners-Lee has said many times that had his then employers, CERN, decided to patent the web and charge a royalty per click, it would not have taken off in the way and at the speed that it did.

But the internet — and the personal computer industry before it — were largely built by idealists who saw the developing network as an opportunity to change the world. So they made it open, just as they made the computer a general-purpose platform — and because of those decisions we have eBay and Skype and Twitter and free software and YouTube. By the same token, we also have phishing, viruses, poisoned DNS caches and DDoS attacks.


Jonathan Zittrain is the co-founder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for the Internet. While writing The Future of the Internet he was still also Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford. The future he wants to stop: the conversion of the internet into a closely controlled, centrally secured network. Look back, he says, at the legacy telephone networks, at CompuServe and AOL's walled gardens, and see the difference. The open — or, as he calls it, 'generative' — internet fosters experimentation and innovation. Those old closed networks required significant investment, while partnership with gatekeepers fostered stagnation. They also made money — something today's internet service providers envy. Conversely, the 'appliancized' (his word, most assuredly not ours) network might be just as powerful, but more easily reguated and far less welcoming to innovation.

One of the key drivers away from the generative internet is security. PCs are open, allowing their owners to make both good and bad decisions about what code they will run. By contrast, tethered appliances — the iPhone being the most obvious example — allow their users only limited choices, and these are the devices that users are readily buying today. They are easy to use — but not, as Zittrain says, easy to tinker with — and they may, like TV set-top boxes, be remotely controlled by manufacturers and other gatekeepers who change the features available to users without their consent.

Some of the solutions Zittrain proposes are regulatory: requiring device manufacturers to be explicit about the portability of data stored in them, for example. Others accept varying standards: for example, that network neutrality may apply as a principle to the open internet yet not to game machines and personal video recorders that are sold as appliances. But the dangers are many and varied, from intellectual property law that creates no-go areas of software code and content to legalised government snooping. If we want the internet to stay open and free, we need today's and tomorrow's users to be as active and engaged as the early users, rather than passive consumers. The iPhone is cute and everything, but it was personal computers that launched a revolution.


The Future of the Internet - and How to Stop It
By Jonathan Zittrain
Allen Lane
352 pages
ISBN 978-1846140143

Show Comments