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The end of the Internet as we know it? Jonathan Zittrain fears the worst

The Internet champion talks about 'generativity' vs. lockdown, nefarious filtering and social solutions to security issues.

By Gary Anthes
April 7, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Jonathan L. Zittrain is co-director of StopBadware.org, a "neighborhood watch" campaign aimed at fighting malicious software. He is also a principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative, a multiuniversity effort to investigate, expose and analyze Internet filtering and surveillance practices. Zittrain is co-author of Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering (MIT Press, 2008) and author of the just-published book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press, 2008).

What is "generativity" in IT, and why is it at risk? It's the ability to use a platform to build new things and share them without the permission or intervention of the maker of the platform. Many of the things we now see as central to the Internet revolution came about because some geeky kids did something whimsical, and then it turned out to be central. A generative system allows many ideas to be tried with low investment and low risk.

But the qualities that make generative systems good make them susceptible to abuse when they become successful. Then, the natural reaction of many people is to retreat. So there is a migration to "locked down" information appliances, like the iPod, that are not programmable by third parties. And you are increasingly seeing the PC itself locked down in places like offices and schools.

Dossier

Name: Jonathan L. Zittrain
Title: Holds the chair in Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University; a principal of the Oxford Internet Institute; the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman visiting professor for entrepreneurial legal studies at Harvard Law School; co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Favorite technology: The Slingbox. "It works beautifully for trans-Atlantic television."
Technology pet peeves: "BlackBerries and, in the U.K., all-in-one washer-dryers that don't really dry."
Epitaph of choice: "Fatal error: [A]bort, [R]etry, [F]ail?"

Isn't there a place for generative systems and locked-down appliances? I like the idea of a diverse ecosystem. I am not against the information appliance that distills the best things that the generative environment produces. I like my TiVo. But I'm nervous that if we lose the generative core, we will be back to a situation where innovation is mediated through a small number of firms.

Won't there always be plenty of bright kids developing new generative things? Young nerds today are not programming for Windows or the Mac or much for Linux. They are programming for Facebook, Google mashups and so on. I see a migration of energy to these. I call these platforms "contingently generative." They are open to third parties, but if someone complains that it hurts them, they can go to Facebook, and it shuts them down. And Facebook even reserves the right to start charging retroactively for successful applications. You don't have to sue the nerds to enforce it; you just cut their application off. Can you imagine Bill Gates saying, "Oh, by the way, you owe me for that application you have been running on Windows?"



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