News.com talk: 'The Future of the Internet--and How to Stop It'

At CNET's offices, Oxford's Jonathan Zittrain warns that restrictive tools and rash approaches to security challenges are endangering the Net.

Jonathan Zittrain speaks at CNET's offices in San Francisco on Wednesday evening. Declan McCullagh/CNET News.com

SAN FRANCISCO--Restrictive tools and rash approaches to security challenges are endangering the health of the online ecosystem, an Oxford University researcher warned Wednesday.

Jonathan Zittrain, who has written a book due out in April called The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It, gave a public talk on the issue Wednesday night at CNET's offices here. News.com hosted the talk--a first for our newsroom. The event, which drew 120 people, was sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

You can call Zittrain's theme the AOL-ization of technology. Instead of personal computers being able to run any program from any source without approval from a third party--which many of us were used to in the 1980s and 1990s--Zittrain fears we're entering a world where centralized approval becomes necessary.

Examples are numerous: Apple's lockdown of the iPhone. Some Google applications that say developers can't "disparage" the company. Facebook.com's copyright policy for developers that says if the application permits file-sharing, they must "register an agent for notices of copyright infringements with the U.S. Copyright Office." Some terms of service agreements that require disclosure of source code. Applications on the Symbian OS that require signatures to work (I don't think Zittrain mentioned this one, but it fits the theme).

"Can you imagine if Microsoft said that for every application that runs on Windows, we get a copy of the source code?" Zittrain asked. Google and Facebook can turn your application "into a brick at any time." Employees from Facebook and Google were sitting in the audience, by the way, but didn't engage him during the Q&A period.

Another way to think about Zittrain's point is to rephrase it this way: Who controls the technology you use? If you think you do, are you sure? There's the case of the FBI almost managing to persuade the courts to let it eavesdrop on an unspecified OnStar-like remote assistance product installed in a luxury car. There's also the lesser-known one of a federal judge ordering Echostar to send software updates to its digital video subscribers that would cripple their devices.

And Zittrain's solution? There's no simple one. Publicity, in the form of persuading people to think about these sorts of trade-offs, is one. Another is distributed control. Zittrain invoked Wikipedia as a model, pointing to project co-founder Jimmy Wales (who was sitting in the front row) and suggesting that in 2001, nobody would have thought a user-edited encyclopedia would work. And they would have been wrong.

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