The internet is one of the most amazing things that human beings have ever constructed. From its origins in the 1960s as an experimental network built by academic researchers, it has grown exponentially into a nervous system for the planet. Its open, non-proprietary, permissive architecture has unleashed several waves of disruptive innovation that have created whole new industries and threaten to destroy others.
Life without this digital ecosystem is now unthinkable - as Estonia discovered when it underwent a savage cyber-attack a year ago. And yet the very features that have made the internet such a creative force in our societies now threaten its future - as citizens, governments and corporations, exasperated or terrified by online mayhem, combine to 'lock down' and regulate the network. Such a future - if it came about - would implement an Orwellian nightmare of comprehensive surveillance and perfect enforcement. It might also strangle the technological goose that has laid so many golden eggs. And it will happen, unless we take avoiding action.
This is the gist of Jonathan Zittrain's important, disturbing and persuasive book. He is one of a handful of scholars - the others include James Boyle, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Bill Dutton, Manuel Castells, Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu - who have explored the impact of the internet on our society and mapped the implications of living in a comprehensively networked society. Interestingly, most of these thinkers are lawyers or social scientists rather than engineers - which suggests that the main issues are social and constitutional rather than technological.
This is both good news and bad: good because legal systems can be changed through social action; bad because constitutional reform requires a citizenry that understands the issues and the need for change. And most citizens in liberal democracies are not up to speed on this stuff, so there's no real debate about what's at stake.
Zittrain's great insight is that the combination of the personal computer and the open internet created what he calls a 'generative system'. He defines generativity as 'a system's capacity to produce unanticipated social change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences'. In other words, an endless capacity for springing surprises.
The PC was conceived as a general-purpose machine that carries out any task that can be specified in terms of a computer program. The internet, designed as a communications system owned and controlled by no-one, was agnostic about the uses to which it would be put. Put PC and network together and - bingo! - you had the ultimate surprise-generation machine.
Many of the surprises have been pleasant. The most dramatic is the web - created by Tim Berners-Lee and his Cern colleagues and unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1991 - the most radical transformation of our communications environment since the invention of printing.
Other welcome surprises included e-commerce, search engines and Wikipedia. A more ambiguous surprise was Napster and the file-sharing revolution, which has more or less seen off the CD-based music industry. And a really nasty surprise was the emergence of what Zittrain calls 'badware' - malicious computer code that has the capacity not just to irritate and inconvenience users but potentially to reduce major industrial countries to chaos. Initially, badware was just vandalism without a business model, but it has evolved into a tool of organised crime - and possibly of terrorism.
The generative system makes it easy to create and disseminate badware. The open nature of the PC also makes it harder to stop, because PCs can be covertly hijacked and are not understood by most users. Allowing a naive user to connect an unprotected PC to a broadband link is like giving a delicate clock to a monkey. And the internet makes it easy to deploy compromised PCs for nefarious ends.
The knee-jerk response to badware has two dimensions. First, it involves locking down the PC by turning it into a tethered 'information appliance', like an Xbox or a BlackBerry - devices that can be used only for purposes authorised by their makers. And, second, it involves imposing intrusive regulation on the internet - for example, new legal obligations for ISPs about the kinds of traffic allowed through their servers.
In essence, the knee-jerk reaction to badware involves reducing - and perhaps eliminating - the generativity of the PC-plus-internet system. Zittrain's argument is that although the pressures for such a reaction are understandable, they could lead us to make a catastrophic error of judgement - with dire consequences for our economies, cultures and liberties. We have to find a way, he contends, to deal with the downsides of generativity without losing its benefits. And that involves thinking about politics as well as about technology. The beauty of The Future of the Internet is that it's an ideal primer for the debate that we now need to have about all this.
The Future of the Internet - And how to stop it. Jonathan Zittrain. Allen Lane £20.00
- John Naughton is professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University. A Brief History of the Future, his book on the origins of the internet, was published by Phoenix in 2000.