The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

Apr 17, 2012 No Comments by


Michael Prodger on:

The Future of the Internet

By Jonathan Zittrain



If the Internet has become a latter-day Wild West with spammers, hackers, privacy snoopers and virus designers circling the wagon train of ordinary users, it is not hard to see why. PCs and the web are still new technologies that betray their ramshackle origins.

When Apple released its first real personal computer, the Apple II, in 1977 it was a machine that could do all sorts of things but wasn’t really designed to do any single thing in particular. The same applied to the Internet itself which was developed as a internal communications tool by university science departments, government research units and telecoms companies. Neither PCs nor the web were initiated with rules or protocols. Essentially, these vital technologies were designed by amateurs, released unfinished and left for users to decide what to do with them.

Little wonder that as they have approached the centre of commercial and private life they keep throwing up problems – not of technology but of use. How the Internet got the way it is (and what to do about it) is the subject of Jonathan Zittrain’s polemical analysis of the web phenomenon. Zittrain is Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford so, as you might expect, parts of his book lay out the sort of detailed discussion that might interest his techno-legal peers but not always everyone else. However, even for the plug-and play reader – the majority I suspect – there is a vast amount of fascinating material here that doesn’t need decoding.

Jonathan Zittrain

Zittrain’s argument is that the response to the threats circulating the Internet will undermine the very qualities that have made it so transformative. He draws a distinction between PCs, which are “generative”, and “appliances” such as iPhones and Playstations, which are “sterile”. By this he means that PCs allow users to open and adapt their code and create new and undreamt of uses – viz Wikipedia or eBay. Items such as iPhones on the other hand are closed and can only be used for what their manufacturers allow. This may be safe – no viruses, no crashes – but it is also more limiting – “safe” means stifled innovation. A tinkerer with an iPhone can achieve little whereas, as Zittrain points out, “it is difficult to find software not initiated by amateurs”.

Much of the book is a plea for Internet tolerance. The author points out that Internet law is essentially unenforceable and that to thrive the Web must continue to operate on the “unsafe is safe” model on which it has grown so far. Even China can’t legislate against the Internet: it may give a metaphorical Chinese burn to Google to censor content but elsewhere it has to rely on different methods to restrict its people’s access to information. The most prevalent of these is remarkably low-tech: the authorities simply adapt the servers and make some “undesirable” sites so slow to load that most browsers simply give up and search for alternative sites.

The book is full of such illuminating snippets. The first Internet message, for example, was “lo” because although the inputter typed the intended word, “log”, the receiving computer crashed before the last letter arrived. The first virus was sent in 1988 when there were only 60,000 Internet-linked computer in the world but the bug’s designer, unchastened, later went on to make $49 million in an Internet start-up company. I particularly liked the top 10 list of the earliest Internet search for “Hitler”: an amateur historian’s website biography, several Holocaust remembrance sites and one for “Kitlers” – cats that bore an uncanny resemblance to Adolf.

Zittrain’s hope that the “generative” Internet can survive is apposite because the threat is real; currently there are reports of two new viruses every minute and 90% of email traffic is spam. He is clear, however, that at its purest – generative devices on a neutral net – the Internet is still the technological city on the hill and that its uses far outweigh the abuses.

Penguin, £14.99, 342 pages



About the author

Michael Prodger is the art critic of Standpoint magazine and was formerly Literary Editor of The Sunday Telegraph. He has judged various literary prizes including the Man Booker, the Samuel Johnson and the Costa Prize. As well as art and books he is fascinated by gadgetry of every hue.