Will the Internet Survive? The Internet is a happy accident of the 20th century. But law professor Jonathan Zittrain wonders whether the net can survive in a culture of freedom and innovation.
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Will the Internet Survive?

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Will the Internet Survive?

Will the Internet Survive?

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The high-tech gadgets we use every day are simpler than ever to operate. They're more seamless, they're more interconnected. But they're also controlled by the people who make them, and that worries Jonathan Zittrain. He's a law professor at England's Oxford University, and he's written a book titled "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It." Jonathan Zittrain, that's a pretty provocative title.

Professor JONATHAN ZITTRAIN (Law, Oxford University): Thanks. I suppose it's an ambiguous one too.

SEABROOK: Well, what is the future of the Internet in your scenario?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, there are a number of scenarios. And one plausible future of the Internet is what I would call not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper scenario, where we end up with a technology ecosystem where innovation takes place the way it does in many other industries. Namely, there's a bunch of firms, they compete, occasionally they come up with something good and things evolve.

The Internet previously has had a very different model for innovation. It's the classic two people in a room model where, you know, an Estonian and a Swede can come up with something called Kazaa, and for better or worse within a week have the music industry mortally wounded. And then when they're done, those two same guys can take on the telecommunications industry and come up with Skype.

That's the kind of interesting disruptive unpredictability that the net has given for better or for worse. And I worry that metaphorically we'll end up with a technical elite class and they'll all swap files and programs with each other but the mainstream will still have a very narrow connection to that and they'll be working off of platforms provided by a few incumbents with innovation taking place very slowly and with a capacity to monitor and control very much amped up. And I can give you a couple of examples of that.

SEABROOK: Well, it makes me think, you know, are we talking, you know, a few people have YouTube and the rest of the people have Comcast?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, we'll still have YouTube but note that YouTube is centrally organized. If there's a terms of use violation or some legal requirement, YouTube has been known to take stuff down, or even to take stuff down by region. So that when Thailand objects to certain YouTube videos that insult the Thai king, Google says, all right, we'll split the difference. We'll make it so the people in Thailand can't see it but everybody else gets to read it.

SEABROOK: Google owns YouTube.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: That's true.

SEABROOK: So, what are your examples then?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, a couple examples come from Internet-enabled appliances that we really like and that are very cool. One is an example of an Ecostar digital video recorder. It's basically like if you had a TiVo you can get an Ecostar version that has the dish connected to it for satellite reception.

SEABROOK: I love my TiVo.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, let me tell you more then. Because not that long ago, TiVo sued Ecostar for patent infringement, said that the DVR was too much like TiVos. They put it to a Texas jury and TiVo won. Not only did Ecostar owe TiVo the usual toll of about $90 million to patent infringement, but TiVo got another order out of the judge that told Ecostar that within 30 days Ecostar had to send a remote upgrade to all but a handful of the installed Ecostar DVRs frying them.

And then you just come down and you're about to, you know, enjoy your episode of "Masterpiece Theatre," and you find that it's been wiped cleaned and in fact your entire functionality is gone. And you realize that if you can do it to turn an Ecostar into an Ecobrick, you can also use it to say, wow, here's a slice of a program that's obscene or that infringes copyright or that defames somebody. Let the word go out, send a signal, the "Simpsons" will be one minute shorter this week because we have some content that's been adjudicated wrong.

SEABROOK: It seems like a jump to me from being able to control the technology to actually censorship of the content running on the technology.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, I think it's a massive conceptual jump, but from a technological standpoint bits are bits and once you the vendor have a privileged ability to affect the way the machine works, you can do it not just whether the machine will continue to exist in the user's house but what bits it will process.

And that's why, for example, TiVo was able to introduce an update that allows purveyors of high-quality content, like pay-per-view stuff, to flag it so that when the TiVo box sees the flag, no matter how long you want it to stay on your TiVo, after a while it say bye-bye, and it disappears from your TiVo. A little red flag goes next to it warning you to use it or lose it.

That's an example of being able to delve into the content, not just into on or off.

SEABROOK: That's interesting.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: I can give you another example if I haven't scared you enough yet.

SEABROOK: No, please do.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Well, some people may have the Onstar system in their cars.

SEABROOK: That's the tracking. You can talk...

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Exactly.

SEABROOK: ...to the operator and they can unlock your car and...

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Exactly.

SEABROOK: ...tell you how to go places and stuff.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Exactly. And you can say I've fallen and I can't get up. You press an emergency button, the operator's voice soothingly comes over the speakers of the car and help is on the way. So, it turns out that this is a good example of what I call a tethered appliance. It's something that you feel you own but that is privileged to the vendor that they can change it in the future.

The FBI came up to the vendor of one of these and said, you know, we have a car containing people of interest and we'd like to eavesdrop on them. And the company wasn't very happy about it but they did it because they could do it. And that's the kind of ability to surveil that I worry about with many of our appliances that can be updated by the vendor in a very privileged way.

SEABROOK: Jonathan Zittrain, is it really as apocalyptic as the title of your book seems to suggest? The future of the Internet and how to stop it?

Prof. ZITTRAIN: A filtered Internet to which open devices are attached - if you give me an open PC on a closed Internet we're going to come up with software to let me get through the filters. We see this happening in China and Saudi Arabia. Not for everybody but for lots.

If on the other hand you give me an open Internet but closed devices, where to get the device to go to somewhere it doesn't want to go I need a soldering gun, now it's much more effective. So part of what I'm trying to do is say, hey, I know you want to lock the front door, why don't we lock the back door too? We need to worry about the endpoints as much as we worry about the network.

SEABROOK: Jonathan Zittrain is the author of the new book "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It." Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. ZITTRAIN: Thank you.

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