Internet in danger of losing innovation

The death of the PC and the rise of the iPhone and other devices pose grave danger, expert says

Jonathan Zittrain is an internationally known cyberlaw scholar and technologist with a giant resume. He is Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford Internet Institute and also teaches at Harvard. Zittrain is co-founder of the Chilling Effects Web site (a watchdog site) and holds patents on wireless and network devices. Zittrain has been making headlines with his latest book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, in which he argues that closed-systems devices like the iPhone are potentially harmful. In a chat, Zittrain explained how he feels about the iPhone and the dangers posed to the Internet as a whole.

The iPhone is transforming the user interface - making Internet usage even simpler. This comes with a price: a closed system. Isn't the price worth it? And for how long will it stay closed?

I want to see us (and that means the market) avoid a dichotomy between the generative but now-dangerous PC-style platforms on the one hand, and the iPhone's gated community on the other. I'd prefer to work inward from the current Internet/PC rather than start with a closed system and pry it open.

Why do you think that "adding stress to the Internet" is something that would harm it? It would seem that it works more like the highway system. The roads are capable of carrying heavy loads from trucks and those loads have forced the builders of the roads to architect them to handle the stress of all forms of traffic. "Stress" has the potential to benefit all users of the infrastructure. If something like the iPhone could "break" the Internet, then it is already broken.

The stresses I emphasize in the book aren't just load -- I'm as amazed as many network engineers that the Internet has scaled as beautifully as it has. (Many have the same view about 802.11 wireless technologies; they're behaving far more reliably under heavy loads than many expected.) Instead, there's reason to worry that the open technologies of the Net and the PC now have much more reason to be subverted and exploited by bad guys, and that without action we'll see a market response to this abuse that puts us that much more into the iPhone zone -- or that of Facebook and Google apps.

So you see the iPhone then as a logical outcome of market security pressures, but that the price of isolation is too high? What then is the solution to the security pressures you describe that are driving iPhone?

Exactly. I worry even that Android will fall victim to the very pressures driving people away from (or to lock down) their PCs. I'd like to see bottom-up ways of evaluating code, rather than farming out to McAfee, etc., and I think there are ways to preserve experimentalist architectures while also allowing room for prime time stuff. I talk about Butler Lampson's idea for a "red zone" and "green zone" on a single PC so people can put their mission-critical stuff in one place but still go offroading at the touch of a button (of course then there will end up being valuable data in the red zone -- that's why we keep it -- in which case we need a Checkpoint Charlie to try to move it to Green without bad things happening.)

The first time I was told about the potential "Death of the Internet" IPv4 was still classful and CIDR dealt (for several years) with that problem. Then the BGP routing tables in core routers were getting too big for the amount of RAM in the routers in use at that time... Since then, the Internet has been threatened with death half a dozen times, including when the "Gated Community" of AOL was linked to the net. Why should we be more concerned about the potential threat of the iPhone and similar devices?

Well, there's death and then there's death. Sometimes the wolf is really coming! But the "death" I have in mind -- and to be sure, I rejected "The Death of the Internet" as the title of the book despite pleas from the publisher -- is more of a whimper than a bang. It's not some overloading of routing tables or bandwidth tsunami. It's more of a social transition: a realization by some bad actors that they can exploit the openness of the Net and PC to great effect, and a movement by the exploited to start making their IT feel more like a fridge or a TiVo than a Heathkit.

And I wouldn't even say that I think the iPhone is killing the Internet -- just that, if it (and things like it, including Web 2.0 app platforms) start substituting for the PC instead of complementing it, we're in trouble. Which reminds me -- I think a number of the comments to the article were basically of the category: "But wait, now there's an iPhone SDK!" to which I say: Yes, but it's not at all like PC apps. Steve Jobs takes a cut of every app (imagine if BillG tried to do that on Windows!) and he reserves the right to kill anything he doesn't like for any reason -- which also means he can be told to kill things by a regulatory authority. How long would P2P apps have lasted if that ability existed in Windows?

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