from the Zittrain-told-us-so department


Among the less discussed but insanely important issues Obama needs his CTO to think through — how to do security consistent with our (now restored) values. And on the must read list: The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

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16 Responses to from the Zittrain-told-us-so department

  1. I wish someone knowledgable would explain the specific political context of Zittrain’s book. It’s very thoughtful material, and it’s clearly aimed at a particular policymaking audience. But I’m not quite in the demographic to fully get what he’s trying to say, without additional context. I see a lot of very poor criticism of it, though that’s in part a function of the incentives of the punditry system (ranting to an audience is rewarded over thinking things through).
    This is not to claim anything about the argument itself.

  2. Steve Baba says:

    The book is entirely legal giberish written by a lawyer.

    I bought it knowing it was mostly legal BS, but I expected one or two new ideas.

    No such luck.

    But it does make Lessig’s work look academic.

    Anyone in the US want to buy my copy? $12 postpaid media mail. Confirmed PayPal address only.

  3. Steve Baba says:

    Pulling the book down from my bookshelf, figuring I better take a last look at it before I sell it to some poor soul, Zittrain-told-us-so’s concluding chapter is on the “great” $100 laptop (One Lap Top Per Child) program.

    The same program that just cut half its staff and is usually considered to be failing because instead of aiming to produce just a $100 dollar laptop, it had untested, utopian transformatioal ideas.

    My book is just in OK condition if anyone wants it for $12. I would reccomond reading a library copy for free. I’ll sell it to some poor soul on eBay. I don’t have enough of a feedback reputation to sell on Amazon.

  4. Matthew says:

    When will users hold the companies that make flawed security software accountable for the damages? The great spin of the last twenty years is that we all call them “computer viruses” when they impact exactly one computer operating system.

  5. Dan says:

    The gist of Zittrain’s book is that crowd-sourcing dynamics on the Internet (Web 2.0 etc. — he calls this the “generative” dynamic, which is all about bottom-up participation in media and creativity) create dangers to the end-user safety and stability of the net, and the reflex impulse of many political forces (especially centralized powers like governments and large commercial interests) is to undermine that bottom-up empowerment structure of the network in favor of centralized control.

    The boogie-man: “tethered” systems. Basically, the end of end-to-end (common carriage, net neutrality) and the end of user control-of-root (generalized computing devices), replacing them with “smart” networks like cable TV, and service-specific computing devices controlled by a central authority instead of allowing the end user the potential of total control over the operation of the device

    This would be a bad thing, I think most people agree, except the Orwellian types.

    Jon recommends that instead of responding to threat this way, instead we should crowd-source the response (cf. open source code: many eyeballs banging on the hacker attacks, white-hat hackers to combat the black-hat hackers). Case in point: the system Google uses to identify malware on web sites (and then block those URLs until the sites have been cleaned up and verified).

    The jury is out on whether this will work, or what will ultimately happen. Jon’s book frames the issues in some detail (the detail can be a bit obfuscating sometimes), but he doesn’t really say a whole lot about detailed responses, other than suggesting that it would be best if we crowd-sourced them, generally.

    He doesn’t get specific about policy options for government, and clearly hopes the private sector (in the broad sense including end users in a very important way) will drive the solutions, with the expectation that this will be an ongoing mission, potentially without end.

    At least, that’s what I got out of the book.

  6. Dan, yes, but in terms of “reflex impulse of many political forces (especially centralized powers like governments and large commercial interests) is to undermine that bottom-up empowerment structure of the network in favor of centralized control.”, specifically, what exactly is he saying – and to whom – that hasn’t been said for many years starting with p*rn and spam, and now bot-nets and viruses?

    Something like “My intended audience for this book is … who think … and I want to tell them …”

    I understood the context of Lessig’s _Code_, since it was clear to me that it was bringing ideas to a certain subgroup that was unfamiliar with them or worse, hearing Libertarian nonsense. But if _Future Of The Internet_ is doing something similar, I’m unfamiliar enough with the demographic that it escapes me.

  7. Dan says:

    Seth: I suppose most of this has been said in one place or another at various times in the last several years.

    What Jon has done is codified it all together, with specific examples to support all the claims, and created a theoretical umbrella to tie it all together into an integrated pattern.

    Kind of like an additional layer of coherence to frame all the details, which helps understand the evolution of this space in a way that sees the whole forest and not just the trees. It allows an overall strategy to be applied to the entire domain, not just pieces in isolation.

    So the audience? Anyone who is interested in the policy aspects of the information infrastructure, especially those who wish to defend the open nature of the network as it stands today (and which stands increasingly under threat, since Brand X, since root-kits, since the iPhone, since mobile phone networks acquire more network traffic but remain non-common-carriage, etc. — and since the incremental increase in spam, malware etc. hits a tipping point).

    Basically, many people are addressing only one silo or another in the total mix, and he’s encouraging all of us to get together and think about all of this at the same time, providing a unifying vision (and potentially a unified strategy) to draw it all together. Pick our heads up out of our immediate work/worlds, and look ahead to what’s over the cliff, as we could be approaching a discontinuity that makes a huge difference.

    While I’m personally familiar with most of the details he presented, I thought he added something to the dialogue by talking about “generative” technology and the looming threats to it. I mean, I had realized back in 2005 that the combination of a content-filtered network with external control of root had the potential to completely obliterate generative dynamics in info tech, but Jon has put it all together in a way that is comprehensive (at this snapshot in time), and outlines the threat in ways that many people hadn’t bothered to pay attention to. Sometimes it takes relatively little to completely flip a worldview, and I think Jon may help do that for some people.

    A threat in one silo may not seem particularly ominous in isolation, but when you put it all together it forms a kind of synergy and begins to loom quite large indeed. Many people who just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that this open system could still be taken away from us (and, in bits and pieces where we wouldn’t necessarily notice any one piece along the way — that old slippery slope again) might just wake up and get concerned now. It should become clear to more people that info-comm tech is the new “nuclear technology” of the 21st Century, and it can be shaped to oppress broadly just as easily as it can be shaped to empower broadly.

    I think the criticisms that it’s too legal-jargony are fair, and that if Jon thought he was addressing a broad popular audience, he will find his audience in reality somewhat constrained relative to that hope (though he did a really good job on Colbert last spring, so who knows). Heck, he’s a law professor, and a very engaging and entertaining one at that, but I think he may have been aiming at more of a lay audience and maybe didn’t quite get there.

    Whatever, glass-half-full or glass-half-empty? I take the half-full stance, and I think he added something that is not duplicated in previous discourse. If nothing else, it’s like a good review that ties together disparate subdomains into a coherent message. Maybe it can introduce some new people to become sensitive to the issues in a way they hadn’t before. Even if that’s a smallish number, they might be well-enough informed, and inspired to dig deeper, that they can help make a difference.

    Frankly, I welcome every increment in the size of the army, because we can use all the momentum we can get. This issue is bigger than many people realize. Certainly the typical Internet user is mostly unaware that this participatory platform could be taken away from them, even now. It would be a good thing for more people to realize this and to start caring about it, in order to be better educated consumers and more empowered citizens.

  8. Dan, may I ask your background? I’m trying to figure out what audience is appreciating the book. A lot of the reaction I’ve seen from the technical side (not counting the knee-jerk ideologues) tends to be along the lines of “Death of the Internet predicted. Film at 11. Meh.”

  9. Dan says:

    I have a mixed background, though currently actually working in policy research, though not in ICT policy. I have an interest in ICT policy stemming from a music background and IP policy.

    The point of the book AIUI is “death of the Internet predicted, possibly can be headed off if centralized solutions are replaced with crowd-sourced solutions.”

    I agree that the “possible solutions” part is not well-developed. Mainly, the “be very afraid” part, to get us motivated to care about it, and perhaps to put more effort toward developing those crowd-sourced solutions (and to push back against public means of centralized solutions that will take us over the cliff).

    Bottom line: I don’t know that Jon has really thought through the audience/message part as clearly as he might have. That doesn’t mean that the book has no value. It might mean that it is not as effective as it could be, in some ways. I don’t know how effective it is or will be. I do think it is a useful addition to the discourse, if not the end of the discussion.

    I think Jon would be happy simply if the book helped re-start the discussion with some new energy and a new bird’s-eye view of the vista to help frame possible strategies and tactics.

  10. Steve Baba says:

    If anyone wants this book for $12, I put my copy up for sale on eBay.

    I don’t even think it’s a good summary for novices. Too one sided.

    Open system, vs Closed System (like the iphon Lessig likes), so 1990s

  11. Dan says:

    Open/closed so 1990s? Like it went away sometime between then and now?

    No, it only got stronger. It started to hit its stride with Brand X in 2005, and it’s picking up steam now. iPhone is great tech, but the fact that it’s tethered really bothers me. Even if I could budget for one, I wouldn’t want to switch to Ed Whitacre’s former company. I don’t trust AT&T as an ISP as far as I can spit. (The POTS is less ominous, but the days of POTS are limited.)

    And Apple is not always the white hat, as they play along with the lock-in.

    Oh well, perfection is not an option. Eternal vigilance. If you (as a consumer) believe in the private market, then if you have the private ability to keep private vendors in line, you’d darn well better exercise that ability. Of course, not all of us have that much market demand power, in isolation.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but the problem hasn’t gone away.

  12. Dan, the “crowd-sourced solutions” and “centralized” gets into some of the politics around the book, which I’m very wary of commenting on. Again, who, specifically, are the pro-centralizers, and what is he saying to them? Or to others? Not that this issue doesn’t exist in the abstract. But is there some plan to nationalize the Internet like there’s talk of nationalize the banks? Is this a high-class version of the ever-popular The-Feds-Are-COMING-FOR-YOU!!! ? (and I’m edging into dangerous territory now :-()

  13. Dan says:

    Seth: I think the centralizers/tetherizers are both public and private. Public when it comes to matters of security, private when it comes to matters of proprietary platforms.

    There is no centralized plan to centralize the network (that I know of), but there are dispersed tendencies to centralize portions of the network for various loosely-related reasons. The danger here is that the individual tendencies may be fragmented, but the end result synergizes the results of these disparate actions in a way that erodes openness and nondiscrimination of information comprehensively in the end. There is a collective insidious nature to this creeping top-down control, whatever its fragmented sources.

    Again, I think Jon’s point is not that there is some well-coordinated conspiracy, but that the free market in conjunction with certain public sector dynamics is leading us over the cliff. The causes for these reactions tend to be the (somewhat novel) messiness of the open net, and thus the knee-jerk reaction to that messiness is currently tending toward closed-net solutions, mostly because people are not envisioning ways to create solutions that are crowd-sourced (they’re mostly not that familiar with thinking that way yet).

    Bottom line, I think this is still somewhat early in the codification of these initially-disparate trends, yet they have begun to come together enough to see the overall pattern, and to cause some basis for a generalized form of alarm. Mainly, Jon wants us to frame all of these things in a coherent worldview, and to begin to conceptualize a response on a general scale, rather than thinking these are all independent in their own silos.

    The point of the book as I read it is pretty simple: Here’s a bunch of things that are slightly disturbing in and of themselves individually. They have certain similarities and a potential for great synergy of a negative type. Put them all together, and the potential here is genuinely alarming. Be alarmed, and think of them as a coherent trend in the umbrella abstract, and then think about how to devise solutions that avoid driving over the cliff and losing the open/nondiscriminatory network. Begin the discussion now, even if there is no well-defined answer yet.

    It doesn’t really seem to go beyond that in any great detail, but the abstraction is significant in and of itself. If we all begin thinking in these terms, then we’ll be able to be more alert to the threats as they develop and to conceive of more appropriate solutions than the dystopia of simply locking down the platform so that bottom-up dynamics are “kept in line” from above in a closed system.

  14. Well, the problem there is that too much abstraction tends to mix things together that are really different in particulars, then use the grand unified theory to pontificate about them (this is just a general statement). To give a different example, words like “Open source” have been particularly abused this way. Again, I sadly feel inhibited from being too specific here.

    But thanks in that I do see now what you’ve gotten out of the book.

  15. Perhaps I’m a little late to the discussion, but here’s my opinion of the book:

    Hopefully Seth wasn’t referring to me when he cited the ‘very poor’ criticism of the book, but I’m not deluded enough to consider myself part of the ‘punditry.” 🙂

  16. Danny, absolutely not, I wasn’t referring to you. I meant e.g. the people brought on as counter-points to Zittrain when he does radio or TV shows. Zittrain certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, but those types seem to have pattern-matched a few phrases and plugged them into their stock political ideology talking-points. It’s not even a battle of wits with unarmed opponents, it’s finger-painting with Jello.

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