The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It

Jonathan Zittrain
Thursday, May 29, 2008 11:00 AM

Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, will be online May 29 at 11 a.m. ET to answer questions about his new book: The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It.

A transcript follows.

Zittrain, who co-founded Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is also a participant in our new video series: Voices on Personal Technology. In his first installment, he answers the question: Is Google a threat to free culture?


Jonathan Zittrain: Hi there - thanks for having me as a guest today. I'm looking forward to the discussion. I'll type as quickly as I can!


Annandale, Va.: I was checking out some seriously cool videos of Google's upstart, open source mobile phone operating system, Android:

What impact do you see this platform having on the mobile market?

Jonathan Zittrain: Android will be a good bellwether for my thesis that we're drifting towards locked down or vendor-controlled environments. If Android takes off, I'm wrong (but relieved!): it'll roughly fit the pattern of the Internet swamping the old AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy.

But without a new architecture for dealing with bad code, I worry that Android will be limited in how far it can go; there's a reason why the iPhone is so popular, and part of it has to do with the reliability of the device arising from every part being put there or approved by the same vendor.


Bethesda, Md.: Web 2.0 feels so old - what do you envision for Web 3.0 or even 4.0?

Jonathan Zittrain: Heh. Why not jump to Web 5.0 while we're at it? (It reminds me of the old modems we used to use -- from 300 baud, to 1200 baud, then 2400, 15200, 34800, and 56K -- why not just jump straight to really fast?!)

Web 2.0 means different things to different people, and I'm actually pretty amazed at how much the versioning usually applied to a piece of software can be tagged to the Web. (It certainly does mean a Web based on a new version of its protocols.)

So: I think the idea of a Web page may be beginning to feel old; browse-and-click isn't the only way to interact with information and people. Some new technologies are rearranging that, but part of the question of whether we'll see them go mainstream is whether our endpoint devices will remain "unowned" by any single vendor or small group of vendors. If we're still using browsers ten years from now as the main way to be online, something's wrong.


Tucson, Ariz.: Is Cybercrime coming from Africa undermining the potential for e-commerce in Africa? What do you think of the spam emails originating from Africa? What can be done about them before they evolve into more sophisticated forms of phishing?


William A. Foster

Faculty Associate

Science, Technology, and Society Program

Arizona State University

Jonathan Zittrain: In the last chapter of the book I quote from Gene Spafford, a renowned computer science professor:

"We can't defend against the threats we are facing now. If these mass computer giveaways succeed, shortly we will have another billion users online who are being raised in environments of poverty, with little or no education about proper IT use, and often in countries where there is little history of tolerance (and considerable history of religious, ethnic and tribal strife). Access to eBay and YouTube isn't going to give them clean water and freedom from disease. But it may help breed resentment and discontent where it hasn't been before.

Gee, I can barely wait. The metaphor that comes to mind is that if we were in the ramp-up to the Black Plague in the middle ages, these groups would be trying to find ways to subsidize the purchase of pet rats."

I don't agree with that. I think that movements like One Laptop Per Child are fascinating, and -- putting aside the implementation details that might alone make it fail -- I very much like the idea of bringing new groups of people online without giving them only "applications" like a mobile phone. I'd love to see what I call generative platforms deployed in areas that haven't really seen any consumer information technology -- and then see how readily a hacker culture can arise in the best sense, exactly the culture that brought us so many of the applications we now think to be central.


Washington, D.C.: With Google, Microsoft, Yahoo (unless it gets eaten up by Microsoft) continue to dominate the industry or will the Internet open back up to the marketplace to allow smaller companies to service niche markets in a profitable way?

Jonathan Zittrain: I think Google in particular is in a great position right now: a river of money flowing by them called search (and Ad Words); talented engineers with a day a week of free time to noodle around; and a brand that makes many of the next generation of talented engineers want to work there.

But the great thing about the Internet and PC we have today -- not a permanent thing, of course -- is that if someone comes along and invents better search, it wouldn't take that much for people to switch away. That may change as more and more of our own data goes online and gets cross-referenced, which is why Google and others are smart to want to create a single portal for search, mail, documents, etc.

Of particular interest to me are Web platforms like Facebook and Google Apps: people can code new stuff to run there, and there's a ton of creativity going into it, notwithstanding how annoying the Vampire App is on Facebook. One question is how open those platforms will be and can stay. I'm nervous that, naturally, Facebook or Google can (and do) shut down apps they don't like (or as Steve Jobs can and will do in the iPhone apps store), in a way that Bill Gates never really could do on a Windows box.


Danville, Calif.: In your opinion, who are the smartest men in Internet technology?

Jonathan Zittrain: Why limit it to just men? :)

Esther Dyson thinks big and asks tough, skeptical questions. Of course, the usual suspects: Sergey Brin is an amazingly smart guy who shoots straight. Mark Zuckerberg has made brilliant strategic decisions, notwithstanding the more headline-grabbing tactical hiccups like Facebook Beacon. Charlie Nesson, a colleague at HLS, framed many cyberspace issues as ones of the commons nearly fifteen years ago. And Larry Lessig is near-effortlessly genius. In my view. :)


Claverack, NY: I'm at work, so I can't play your video log. Can you tell me please, IS Google a threat to free culture? Becuase I like free culture and I like Google. If they're fighting I'll be so upset. Voices on Personal Tech: Jonathan Zittrain (Video produced in partnership with BigThink)

Jonathan Zittrain: Short answer, no, which just shows how the teaser for the 11 o'clock news can be more exciting than that to which it points. Google's business interests align nicely with openness -- and the company is structured to leave unusually significant control in the hands of its two founders. Their no-nonsense, unsentimental but still firmly open approach infuses much of what Google does. It could change -- companies can evolve, and markets exert lots of pressures -- but for the moment, Google's instincts tend to lie with making information effortlessly available.


Washington, D.C.: Glad you disagree with that professor's take on the growing availability of the Internet in Africa. There is some ugly, ugly stuff out there on the Balkans and Turkey-Kurdish tensions, and yet no one's saying the Internet is having a net negative impact on those countries. Lordy.

Jonathan Zittrain: I once heard from the Macedonians, who found that many of the world's ISPs had decided that only hacking emanated from Macedonian Internet Protocol addresses -- and essentially had banned the whole country from traversing bits over their networks! A rather broad brush.


New York, N.Y.: Is the "transparency and Internet" just another way to "control" the public, under the guise of "helping" to connect? Security, that's the issue?

Can we disconnect and stay informed?


Jonathan Zittrain: It's a diminishing number of people who can disconnect entirely, although I do see plenty here in Oxford. :)

Traditional media are now profoundly influenced by what's going on online, so reading the New York Times or the BBC is, in part, reading the Drudge Report or because of the way that they can set the agenda.

I think the range of what is antiseptically called new media has been a positive influence on traditional media, in part because traditional media itself has departed from the standards that are so often said to separate it from "mere" bloggers.


New York City, N.Y.: I agree with your fear that big companies like Facebook and Google may eventually close their Apps - but isn't that the history of the Web -- starting out small with big-brother type corporations now taking over. And if Verizon and other big telecoms get their way in the Net Neutrality debate, won't that further crush aspirations of the open-source movement?

Jonathan Zittrain: Well, there's a pattern with lots of technologies of starting in a backwater, being driven by hobbyists and tinkerers, and then going big, with consolidation and regulation. Think radio, television, even publishing. But in the early 90's we had an interesting flip where the CompuServes and AOLs gave way, unexpectedly, to the Net. (Imagine companies with serious investment, thoughtful CEOs, and carefully groomed content giving way to a network with a thimble of investment, no CEO, no main menu, and no plan for content!)

I do think a central question is whether we'll see the pendulum swing -- and perhaps stay -- the other way. That's what a lot of the book talks about. I find a lot of people with faith that open always beats closed, but it's just not true: sometimes open gets abused in ways that makes the closed very rationally appealing. There's a reason why a CIO of a major company will make sure every PC there is locked down so that the next flying toaster screen saver added by a clerk in accounting can't slurp all the corporate secrets off the box while it's there!


Pot Falls, Va.: Now that more people than ever can make their voice heard, are we doomed to listen to partially informed, bitter, angry vitriolic rubbish the rest of our online lives?

Cynical in Va.

Jonathan Zittrain: I don't think so. (Lee Siegel has written a lot about this, by the way, in his book Against the Machine.) Theodore Sturgeon, the science fiction writer, was once told that 90% of SF was crud. "Yes," he said, "90% of everything is crud."

So there's a lot of stuff out there that isn't that inspiring -- or that's downright hurtful or deceptive. But our technical architectures for letting people express themselves online are all over the map, and those attached to natural gathering points like online newspapers are (with apologies to WaPo) primitive. That's why I'm intrigued (but not cyberutopian) by Wikipedia: it's a genuinely new technology that makes possible a culture of discussion and moderation that's today often vitriol-free.

For those who haven't done so yet, check out an article of your choice on Wikipedia and then click on the "discussion" link at the top of the page. Chances are good that you'll like what you see. (Mileage may vary, of course.)


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, are traditional media outlets finally accepting that the Internet is here to stay, and are adapting their content to it? How long do you think this will last? Will internet make the TV obsolete?

Jonathan Zittrain: I think TV is hemorrhaging eyeballs, mindshare, and money to the Web. That's in part what's powering the current boom(let): advertising dollars that previously only had a home on television, and could fund the production of ER and West Wing, are now heading to the Web (with Google often as the first stop).

But it's one thing to abandon the literal medium of TV for the Web. The question underneath is what people want to do with their time: will we still be watching amateur videos on YouTube in fifteen years, or will the traditional producers of content have found ways to make compelling stuff emanate from Hollywood offered through a Web (or at least Internet) outlet?

I think the trend to watch is how much people (especially the kids who will end up as the next generation of Internet users) find themselves wanting to invest their own thoughts and views into what they see and hear online. If they're still basically just pointing and clicking, Hollywood can breathe a sigh of relief.


Chicago, Ill.: What do you make of "forced generativity" or the phenomenon of unlocking sterile devices by geeks or the street repairs/DIY in much of the developing world. Is this a sustainable protection of generativity? Does it have more important implications?

Jonathan Zittrain: I don't think an open (yes, as I call it, "generative") Net can be sustained simply by those who hack away at more sterile devices and platforms. In part this is because ubiquitous connectivity means that those devices and platforms can be updated all the time by their vendors. It's one thing to go in the corner and hack an old iPod or, for that matter, a toaster. But it's another when that iPod is hooked up to the Internet 24/7, and where you might want updates from the vendor -- and those updates in turn can look for hacks. (Think Windows Genuine Advantage, constantly on the lookout to see if you're a real customer or an enemy.)

I don't want a world where only the hackers get Get Out of Jail Free cards, and where everyone else risks serious crossfire to break out of a sterile platform.


New York: Isn't the Internet completely mispriced, and doesn't this restrict its ability to become what it could? I'll give you an esoteric example: Yahoo completely stinks at search, but has unrivalled free content. I'm told Yahoo's market value is based on search, and Yahoo hasn't thought twice about charging for content.

Jonathan Zittrain: Many of the destinations we go to on the Net aren't mispriced -- they're commercial ventures that have some plan to stay green for the creators, with no guarantee that it's not hare-brained. The market eventually is supposed to discipline. And free can still be profitable -- the ads we watch are often free (!), and even the content we choose to see. (Think broadcast TV.)

But there are other ways in which the Internet is mispriced or non-priced, quite possibly in a good way. Think of the Surrey cheesecam that was (is?) so popular: people tuned in to watch a wheel of English cheese mature! Waste of bandwidth to ship those bits around the world? The way the Internet works, a given server pays only for its bandwidth into the "cloud," the middle of the Net -- after that, other arrangements get the bits to their destinations. (That's why some consumer ISPs in the U.S. are resentful of Google; they want to charge Google and other big content providers for hurling bits at their customers. Of course, the customers are usually already paying to be online.)

I like that the accounting doesn't quite add up: it means that seemingly pointless or wasteful applications can take off and then mature. The first web cams were focused on office cubicles and goldfish bowls. Then we found lots of other uses for streaming video.

If your attitude is that you don't know where the next big invention will come from, you'll want a Net where new things can happen without a ton of investment or approval up front from those in the know or in power, whether economically or politically. If you think we've already had our round of innovation, and we know what works, then maybe you want to just lock it in.


Ithaca, N.Y.: How do you see the Web evolving in China? It certainly seems as if Chinese Web use is growing more vibrant, and not just politically. What general tendencies and traits do you think these emerging 'cyber citizens' will bring to the Web -- and how will they affect our use of it?

Jonathan Zittrain: I think one of the most interesting barriers is language: once online, it's still tough to interact with people who don't speak the same set of words you do. So to me we're just entering a watershed moment: you can go to Google Chat or many other facilities and add a translation robot that does a decent enough (and ever-better) job and then you can actually find yourself talking to someone in China about Tibet, Taiwan, or Tiananmen.

That could turn out to be a huge moment on the Net, one with surprises for everyone involved. I've co-authored a book about Internet filtering around the world called Access Denied, with the data online at, which has a lot more about the dynamics in places like China where Web and Internet censorship is much more a fact of daily life.


Reston, Va.: Will the FCC's plan for free, but censored Internet wireless service lead to widespread Internet censorship? What can citizens do to block Internet censorship by either the government or large corporations?

Jonathan Zittrain: I'm not sure what you mean by a plan for free but censored Net access. The FCC has basically stayed out of the censorship business on the Net -- though my colleague Susan Crawford has written some great stuff about worries that the FCC is allowing too much Internet regulation and surveillance.

On the censorship front, the first step is just knowing that it's happening. The OpenNet Initiative that I mentioned in an earlier answer works to tally up Internet censorship around the world -- how it's done, how effective it is, and how people react to it (if they know). On working around the censorship, there are a variety of tools that can help, ranging from online anonymizers and translators (even the Google cache!), to projects like the EFF's TOR (checkout the TorPark browser, for example, or today's BoingBoing post from Cory Doctorow about TOR) and my colleague Ron Deibert's Psiphon project.

Psiphon is particularly interesting because it pairs up someone in, say, Canada, with someone in Saudi Arabia. The volunteer in Canada gives a special address to the pal in SA and the SA citizen can then use the Canadian's PC to see the Net the way the Canadian does, and the Canadian can keep surfing separately. I think that's an intriguing technology because its success will depend on how many people are moved to sign up to help, and on links forged on a one-on-one basis. That makes it particularly difficult for a government to block as a technical matter.

Finally, I'm involved in a project (working name "Herdict," as in verdicts from the herd) where people who can't get to a Web site can click a button in their browser that says "Why can't I get there from here?" Asking the question, aggregated with other such reports, helps to provide the answer. We might find that lots of people in China are asking about BBC but no one else is -- giving us a hint about where (and how intentional) the block is. We should have an alpha version of this ready by mid-June.


Oxford, U.K.: Hi Jonathan -- In your book, you seem to argue that security threats are the primary cause for users to desert the generative internet for a locked-down version. Particularly in reference to your iPhone example, I think you underestimate the importance of the "cloud" and that that people are using consumer devices -- like the iPhone or dumb SunRay-like terminals -- to access an increasingly generative web, whose applications require greater processing power than traditional computers allow. What are your thoughts on this?

Jonathan Zittrain: Oxford, UK, eh? A neighbour!

Yes, I think that it can seem like, "Give me a Web browser and you've given me the world!"

But at the same time we are migrating to locked down devices, we are migrating to a handful of aggregating destinations run by big players who can be the targets of regulation or their own shifting business plans. (Youtube is centralized, and videos going there instead of P2P can be blocked by Youtube itself, such as it agreed to do to prevent Thai citizens from seeing videos mocking the Thai king.)

More important is to follow where the nerds of today are spending their time coding. I think many are attracted to code for contingently generative platforms like the iPhone, with Steve Jobs controlling what happens next, or they are coding for Facbook or Google Apps platforms. Those platforms are really powerful and cool -- but they naturally empower the platform makers in ways that the old PC platforms never did for Gates or Jobs.

The book suggests some ways, many of which have to do with rallying those nerds to demand more freedom from the platform makers for whom they end up coding, to try to keep the Web generative.


Manila, Philippines: Do you think, engaging in an Internet cafe business (i mean in asian setting or third countries) is still a viable or a good business in the next few years?

Jonathan Zittrain: I don't know, but thought I'd air your question even with a non-answer answer. I suppose one question is exactly what an Internet cafe is: is it a spot for Internet access? A place to get one's hands on a PC for awhile? A gathering place where people can talk and meet other tech-oriented or -using people? Depending on the answer, you could figure whether, say, the rise of the mobile phone as a primary network access tool -- completely bypassing the traditional configuration of PC-and-Net-connection for access -- would be a threat to the business.


New York, N.Y.: Do you think Facebook will still be the "buzz" networking site in five years, or will it give way to the Next Big Thing, as MySpace and Friendster did? Why does everybody migrate from one of these sites to the next?

Jonathan Zittrain: The crux, to me, is whether Facebook can stay as clean and non-schlocky as it currently is (which is a big advantage over Friendster and MySpace, frankly), and more important, where the Facebook Apps platform goes. If at the end of the day it's just a repository for name, rank, and serial number, then it has to fight constantly to stay the best, helped only by the annoyance of (or barriers to) having to move one's identity to a new platform if displeased with Facebook.

But if the Apps platform blooms, then it rides on top of the wave rather than being crushed by it: Twitter takes off but integrates with Facebook status messages thanks to a plug-in, etc. So to me the Platform is the thing to watch. We may remember Facebook as a "mere" college facebook the way that we think of Google as a "mere" search engine.


Fairfax, Va.: What's your take on Net Neutrality? Who's right and who's wrong? And what will ultimately happen?

Jonathan Zittrain: I want to see a neutral Net in the sense of seeing two parties able to exchange bits online without having to worry about whether they have special relationships with anyone in between. Advances in bandwidth in other countries (like South Korea) may force higher expectations for U.S. bandwidth, but to me the real advances lie in the laboratory, and with luck the public laboratories of the university and .org community -- the communities that gave us the original Internet protocols and failed to patent them.

We need an Al Gore type to sit quietly on a Senate committee and push a little funding towards new technologies like mesh networking, where there may not even be traditional ISPs. Then that person can be accused by Trent Lott of taking credit later for inventing it. :)


Jonathan Zittrain: Thanks for the questions -- see you in cyberspace! My outpost is


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